How Free Can Mobile Networks Be?

Ahhh. Breathe the fresh air of freedom. Bask in the invigorating glow of open choices, options and of course, source. Why all the excitement? Haven't you heard? The open source and free software movement is coming to the mobile market. Yep, finally the most locked down and proprietary of technology arenas will open up to user choice and customization. Just as users of the traditional Internet are free to run pretty much any operating system and choose any ISP, mobile phone users will be able to run open source software and applications and easily move between providers. Just look at all of the momentum. There's Google Android working on providing an open mobile platform and several smaller Linux based platforms that are already powering some phone systems. And Nokia just announced that they will buy and open source Symbian, by far the largest cell phone platform today. That's right! Soon all of us mobile users will be free, to do what we want, any old time. Or not.

Jim RapozaAhhh. Breathe the fresh air of freedom. Bask in the invigorating glow of open choices, options and of course, source.

Why all the excitement? Haven't you heard? The open source and free software movement is coming to the mobile market.

Yep, finally the most locked down and proprietary of technology arenas will open up to user choice and customization. Just as users of the traditional Internet are free to run pretty much any operating system and choose any ISP, mobile phone users will be able to run open-source software and applications and easily move between providers.

Just look at all of the momentum. There's Google Android working on providing an open mobile platform and several smaller Linux-based platforms that are already powering some phone systems. And Nokia just announced that it will buy and open source Symbian, by far the largest cell phone platform today.

That's right! Soon all of us mobile users will be free, to do what we want, any old time.

Or not.

Because when I look at some of these developments, especially Nokia's announcement about open-sourcing Symbian, I don't see the same thing that I do when I look at something such as Linux on PCs.

That's because the mobile network providers, especially in the United States, are still calling all of the shots. Right now it doesn't matter if your phone is open or not; if Verizon or AT&T don't let it run on their network, then it won't run on their network.

I know the terms of the spectrum auction stipulate open access for the new spectrum, but there's plenty of wiggle room in that agreement for wily telecoms to slip through in order for them to continue their stranglehold over mobile Internet access.

And as far as that Nokia promise to open-source Symbian, that's another situation where I'll believe it when I see it.

In many of their public discussions with the open-source community, Nokia has sounded an awful lot like someone who wants to gain all of the benefits of open source without committing to any of the responsibilities. Sure, they love the idea of lots of open-source developers doing free work to improve and extend open-source software. But when it comes to things such as providing code back to the community, especially in areas such as Digital Rights Management and hardware locking, they sometimes seem to not be quite as enamored of open-source principles.

Now I don't want to sound too cynical. Like most regular users I'm really hoping for a day when I have as much freedom of choice and options in the mobile Internet space as in the PC-based Internet. After all, the mobile Internet is poised to become in some ways more important than PC-based access.

But the mobile network providers are currently free of the whole concept of network neutrality and they are quite happy to stay that way. Hopefully this situation will change, especially if improved and more open wireless standards become more common and effective.

But for now, don't get too excited about all of this talk of freedom and openness in mobile systems.