Open wireless networks for America?

David Hattey, CEO of FirstHand Technologies points out in an opinion piece on CNET that US mobile network operators may be opening up their phones to third party applications. He cites two announcements from last November: Apple’s announcement of an SDK for the iPhone, and Verizon’s “Any Apps, Any device” announcement.

This point was echoed in the New York Times article on the 700MHz spectrum auction that I wrote about earlier today:

The new rules have already begun to reshape the rapidly emerging wireless broadband industry. It prompted Verizon and AT&T to change their policies and open their networks to new applications and devices, just as Google and its allies had hoped.

“The issue has melted away,” Mr. Martin said. “It is no longer as controversial, as the major providers have moved to open up their networks.”

Google phone developer community

The genesis of the Google phone project is described in this Boston Globe article by Scott Kirsner.

The Open Handset Alliance will release its SDK on November 12th, 2007. The iPhone SDK will not be released until four months later. Microsoft and Symbian already have not only mature SDKs, but vigorous development communities: in mid-2007 Windows Mobile had 650 thousand registered developers, and Forum Nokia had 2 million registered individuals and 440 companies in its “Platinum Program.”

As usual with a new development environment, it’s a chicken and egg situation, but the chicken is coming out in pretty good shape; if the base platform debuts with comparable functionality to what the iPhone came out with, it’s a low-risk proposition for the phone OEMs, and Google’s magic coattails will ensure hysterical enthusiasm in the developer community.

Google phone alliance members

The Open Handset Alliance was announced today by Google and 30 or so other companies. Until now the highest-profile open source handset operating environment was OpenMoko.

The list of participants has no real surprises in it. Nokia isn’t on the list, most likely because this project competes head on with Symbian. This may also help to explain why Sony Ericsson isn’t a supporter yet, either. But the other three of the top five handset manufacturers are members: Motorola, Samsung and LG. All of these ship Symbian-based phones, but they also ship Windows based phones, so they are already pursuing an OS-agnostic strategy. Open standards are less helpful to a market leader than to its competitors.

Of course the other leading smartphone OS vendors are also missing from the list: Microsoft, Apple, Palm and RIM.

Ebay is there because this massively benefits Skype.

Silicon vendors retain more control of their destiny when there is a competitive software community, so it makes sense that TI is aboard even though it is the market leader in cellphone chips. Intel is another chip vendor that is a member. Intel can normally be relied on to support this type of open platform initiative, and although Intel sold its handset-related businesses in 2006, its low power CPU efforts may evolve from ultra-mobile PCs down to smartphones in a few years.

Among MNOs Verizon and AT&T Mobile are notorious for their walled-garden policies, so it makes sense that they aren’t on the list, though Sprint and T-Mobile are, which is an encouraging indication.

At the launch of the iPhone Steve Jobs said that the reason there would be no SDK for the iPhone was that AT&T didn’t want their network brought down by a rogue application. I ridiculed this excuse in an Internet Telephony column. Even so, the carriers do have a valid objection to completely open platforms: their subscribers will call them for support when the phone crashes. For this reason, applications that use sensitive APIs in Symbian must be “Symbian signed.” When he announced the iPhone SDK, Steve Jobs alluded to this as a model that Apple may follow.

So Sprint’s and T-Mobile’s participation in this initiative is very interesting. Sprint’s press release says:

Unlike other wireless carriers, Sprint allows data users to freely browse the Internet outside its portal and has done so since first offering access to the Internet on its phones in 2001.

Open Internet access is actually available from all the major US MNOs other than Verizon; AT&T ships the best handset for this, the iPhone. But the iPhone doesn’t (officially) let users load whatever software they want onto the phone. Symbian and Windows-based phones generally do, and again all the major MNOs ship handsets based on these operating systems. An open source handset goes a big step further, but who benefits depends on what parts of the source code are published, and what APIs are exposed by the proprietary parts of the system. As a rule of thumb, one would think that giving developers this greater degree of control over the system will increase their scope for innovation.

SDK for iPhone

In a message signed by Steve Jobs, Apple announced that it will release an SDK for the iPhone in February.

This means that Adrian Cockroft was right when he said that Apple simply hadn’t had time to create an SDK for the initial release of the product. This was reported in an interesting Wired post.

How open will the iPhone be with the SDK? There are two kinds of open-ness associated with the iPhone, first the ability to load applications into the phone’s execution environment and run them, and second the ability for the phone to work on any GSM network (network unlocking).

The announcement says:

We want native third party applications on the iPhone, and we plan to have an SDK in developers’ hands in February. We are excited about creating a vibrant third party developer community around the iPhone and enabling hundreds of new applications for our users.

To reduce the risk of malware, Apple plans to require digital signing of some kind for the applications; this is a great idea provided that the process to get the signature isn’t too arduous.

It will be interesting to see how much of the system is exposed through the SDK. Nokia’s Symbian environment lets third parties take control of the telephone UI, so that they can implement handset clients for FMC. If the iPhone SDK provides the hooks to do this the iPhone would become useful in a dual-mode enterprise environment. But it is unlikely that the iPhone will soon be as enterprise-friendly as the Nokia ESeries phones, which have OMA-DM, and just-announced “Freeway” connection mangement.

As for the network unlocking, Apple is rumored to share in the service revenue stream that AT&T gleans from the iPhone, and is also rumored to have similar arrangements with its European network partners. If you could buy an iPhone and activate it on any network, Apple would miss some of this revenue. This means Apple is motivated to make sure that every iPhone sold is tied to a service plan from which it gets revenue. But once that activation has occurred, and the customer has committed to a long term service agreement, both AT&T and Apple will get monthly service revenues whether the phone is used on that network or not. On the other hand, Apple will be shipping an unlocked phone in France, since French law limits locking of phones to networks. Whether this will have any effect on unlocking policy in other countries is to be seen. Unlocked French iPhones will presumably flood eBay as soon as they are released, and class action suits in the USA may force AT&T to unlock iPhones on demand, or within 90 days of purchase (as they do other phones) or at the end of the service agreement (two years).

Bluetooth headset for the iPhone

I went to an Apple store today, to buy an iPhone Bluetooth headset. I asked the clerk how the iPhone is selling, and he said “Steady, to both business users and consumers.” I came back to my desk to find a press release from iSuppli saying that the iPhone was the best selling smartphone in the US in July, with 1.8% of the overall cell phone market.

The iPhone Bluetooth headset comes in a box about the same size as the iPhone’s box. As usual with Apple, the box and all its contents are seductively designed, a pleasure to unpack and examine. The headset itself is tiny, but it comes with two USB connectors, one a nice docking station for the phone plus the headset, and one a traveling cable for both the phone and the headset.

One benefit of these dual connectors is pairing. To pair the devices simply plug them both in at the same time. That’s all. It worked for me. Another nice touch is the charging progress indicator that appears on the screen of the iPhone. It shows the battery status of both the headset and the phone.

The headset comes pre-charged; it was only plugged in to the dock for a couple of minutes before the light went green. Even plugging it in brought a little lift of the spirit, as I discovered that it uses the same magnetic engagement technology as the MacBook power connector.

What a disappointment when I made a call, though! There was a lot of static and a sound like running water at both ends of the connection. This is par for the course in my experience of Bluetooth headsets (there are half a dozen discards in my desk drawer), but still not acceptable. The headset was about 3 feet from the phone. There are several Wi-Fi transmitters in my office, but Bluetooth is supposed to be immune from this kind of interference due to its adaptive frequency hopping, which is supposed to learn which frequencies are conflicting and avoid them. ** Update: on subsequent calls I didn’t experience the same degree of impairment, so this initial experience may have been anomalous. The call quality on most calls appears to be acceptable. Even better, this is the first in-ear headset I have used that is so comfortable that I forget I am wearing it. This is a breakthrough. But now that it’s in my ear all the time I am beginning to be concerned about battery life. **

About a billion cell phones were sold in 2006, of which about 50% had Bluetooth capability. About 100 million bluetooth headsets were sold in 2006. Although 100 million of anything is a lot, it is only a 10% attach rate for headsets to phones. I believe the attach rate would be higher if the comfort, sound quality and ease of use were improved.

A strange omission in the iPhone Bluetooth headset is the apparent lack of support for playing iPod content through it. While it may make sense to think that music listeners must have stereo, not every MP3 is music. I play a lot of saved NPR clips through my iPhone, and the headset wires are constantly getting tangled up. Balanced against this inconvenience I would be quite satisfied with monaural playback of this content through a Bluetooth headset. It seems high-handed to deny this option to those who might find it useful. Perhaps this design decision has something to do with battery life.

iPhone activation experience

I sat down with my iPhone and my MacBook, turned on the iPhone and tapped on the screen where it said “Activate iPhone.” The screen went black. Not a good sign.
Then I remembered that the iPhone needs to be plugged in to the PC physically to activate it. This is weird, because one of the things I like best about my MacBook is the way I can just put my Mororola Razr on the desk near it and download photos without any fuss.
So I plugged in the iPhone to the USB and fired up iTunes to do the activation.
Some of the questions were intrusive. It forced me to enter my social security number, also a credit card number for iTunes. I would have preferred to wait until I was ready to buy something from iTunes before giving it credit card info.
The minimum billing I could find was $59.99 a month plus a $36 activation fee for an obligatory 2 years.
This is a $1,536 commitment; add in the $600 for the phone and this toy costs over $2,000.
iTunes showed me my new phone number, and the phone screen said:
“Waiting for AT&T activation. This may take some time.”
This sounded ominous, but within a minute the phone said it was activated.
I made a phone call. Sounded OK.