Imagine an Open Wireless Phone System

Opinion: Advocates for openness argue that the cell phone companies have no business telling us what software we can and can't run on our phones. They should be careful what they wish for.

I recently went to buy new cell phones for my wife and me. Verizon Wireless had been nagging me to do this over the phone or online for a while and Ive been due for a "free" upgrade for almost a year, but I want to see and try the phone in my own hands first. It was an agonizing experience. I knew every step of the way that I was being robbed. I only stick with them because theyve got the best network in my area.

It must be in the nature of big telecom companies to take every last penny they can get away with. They operate as if the whole thing could come crashing down any minute and theyd better take all the money they can while they can. In their shoes, maybe Id do the same thing.

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But it really makes me sympathetic when I read Walt Mossberg of the Wall Street Journal writing about the overbearing control the telecoms have over their users operation of their own phones. Mossberg analogizes it to PCs: Imagine your ISP telling you what programs you could run on your PC. (In fact, if youre a Comcast user running BitTorrent you dont need to do a lot of imagining.)

I know where Mossbergs coming from here and I admire this part of his work. He advocates unflinchingly for the interests of the consumer. But hes missing, or at least not addressing, an important point in this specific subject. He argues that the mobile phone business would be a lot better if customers were able, as they are able with their PCs on the Internet, to install and run whatever applications they please. What would happen?

Apple has been asking those same questions. They probably led Apple to initially deny the option of running native apps on the iPhone. After being shown by hackers that native apps were coming, with or without permission, Apple will release an SDK, but they know this stuff is complicated: "It will take until February to release an SDK because were trying to do two diametrically opposed things at once—provide an advanced and open platform to developers while at the same time protect iPhone users from viruses, malware, privacy attacks, etc."

Next page: What Will Apple Do?