With Orange Phones, the Network Is the Platform

Opinion: At its developers conference in Europe, the telco explains why it doesn't let platform makers set its agenda.

I dont think Id ever heard of a mobile phone network holding a developer teach-in. But now, Ive been to one. It was held by Orange, another telco that doesnt want to be just a bit pipe.

"They dont want to be bit pipes," a developer remarked. "They are bit pipes; deal with it!"

But from the point of view of the hackers, Orange got the conference pretty well right. Beer available all of the time. Food available 24 hours a day for all three days, power points in every room for notebook PCs, ubiquitous Wi-Fi—and some good tutors.

Want pictures? I got em … There were also special rooms, including a quiet coding room with tech support on hand, a chill-out room with a widescreen TV and beer, and another with a couple of pinball tables and arcade games (full arcade versions) and beer.

And tents, so you could crash right where you were networking. Oh, and of course, a sleeping bag, a camp bed and a towel. You have to know where your towel is.

/zimages/7/28571.gifClick here to read about how U.S. telcos are developing entertainment offerings.

But it wasnt the normal programmer conference.

The normal thing, you see, is for mobile developers to attend conferences organized by the platform makers. If you want to write for Microsoft mobile, then there used to be the MDC (Mobile Developers Conference) in Europe. (I missed it this year, because Microsoft canceled it.) Or you can go to the Palm Beer Festival next month in Munich, or the Symbian developer network, or Java One.

In contrast, the people who attended the Orange conference think the network is the platform. The network is Orange, not widely known stateside (though there is a genuine Orange node on the Microsoft campus in Redmond!) but pretty big worldwide, a subsidiary of France Telecom.

People came, literally, from all around the world... 250 people who buy into the idea of tailoring the software to the network, not to the phone. There was even a developer from Australia, and another from Seattle.

For Orange, allowing the platform makers to call the tune is the way to ruin. Like every other telco, it sees a yawning crevasse ahead where there is nothing to distinguish one from the next except how huge the discount is. And like every mobile network, it dreams of offering "added value," and so far, its made a pretty fair fist of it.

What Orange offers are "signature phones." They include things like the Palm (well, the Handspring, really) Treo 600—which Orange had the European exclusive on for the best part of a year—or the SPV, the pioneering version of the Microsoft smart-phone platform. Or the Alcatel One Touch, the Motorola e365 and so on.

The idea is that the user experience should be as similar as possible across all of the phones Orange customers get.

Strangely, the platform makers love it. PalmSource CEO David Nagel showed up in person, riding a Segway that was later given to the best entrant in his programming contest. And there was pretty good support from Symbian, Nokia (well, who can tell the difference these days?) and ... where was Microsoft?

In a three-day event with eight threads to the seminars, there were at least half a dozen presentations from everybody in the smart-phone business. There was even one on Linux. We got a sneak look at the new PalmOS and down-and-dirty insights into what can go wrong with 3G data.

And amongst all this, one solitary Microsoft guy shows up and does one solitary session on "introducing Windows Mobile." Nokia was a Platinum sponsor, while Palm, Intel and Symbian were gold sponsors. Microsoft was a silver sponsor. Well, Redmond wouldnt want to be too closely associated with a mere bit carrier, now, would it?

Read Guy Kewneys other recent columns about trends in mobile and wireless technology.

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