Thursday, November 23, 2006


Breaching the Cellcos' Garden Wall

Bob Lucky likes to complain that his mobile phone (a) won't play self-generated ringtones (you have to buy them from the phone company), (b) won't upload pictures directly (you have to send them over the phone company's network) and (c) won't give direct access to GPS information (without a subscription from the phone company).

Good news, Bob! Several current tidbits hint at the opening of the cell phone, which, in turn, promises to disrupt the mobile carriers' verticalized business model and usher in a whole new set of players in the handset business.

First, there's news of a completely open-source Linux-based mobile computing platform, the OpenMoko. It is different than previous phones that use Linux, in that it provides a truly open interface for developers. There's a good write-up here, and Sean Moss-Pultz, the inspired creator of OpenMoko, has a delightful presentation here (.pdf).

Wonder what an open mobile platform can do that closed platforms don't? Tim O'Reilly has a perceptive posting called Ten Things I Want from my Phone.

A second news item: Om Malik has sniffed out a rumor that Apple is finally building its long-rumored iPod phone. The breakthrough, says Malik, is that Apple is building it UNLOCKED! That is, the new iPhone will be sold by Apple directly, not in partnership with a cellco. (The delay has been due to fights between Apple and the cellcos about how to divide the revenues from a closed iPhone!) The iPod phone will be the first popular unlocked US phone. Om thinks that the iPod won't be mass-market at first, but I disagree! We're already spending US$300 for our non-phone, mass-market iPod. Adding phone capability won't up the price much more.

Both the OpenMoko and the iPod phone will have GSM radios -- so they'll work around the world. In the U.S., they'll work with T-Mobile or Cingular sim cards. Potential problem: it isn't clear that Apple or OpenMoko will have Wi-Fi! Which brings us to the third tidbit . . .

Third, a bunch of mobile Wi-Fi phone platforms are now available, largely (but not exclusively) driven by the success of Skype, and more are on the way! (Note: Skype has a package deal whereby you can buy a Wifi phone and a FONera router for US$159 -- once you install your FON router, you can make free carrier-less calls wherever there's another FON hotspot. Disclosure: I am on FON's US Advisory Board.)

I expect that Wi-Fi soon will be a popular requirement. I strongly suspect that mobile platforms with two radios, Wi-Fi and GSM, will host the really cool apps and outsell the others.

If I were a cellco addicted to the vertical value chain, I'd be worried. (But they're unlikely to feel the threat . . . until the new apps are so popular they're uncontrovertably killing the cellcos' "traditional" revenue stream.) If I were a handset maker, I'd be doing what Nokia does -- building Wi-Fi into all(?) their unlocked devices, and I'd be a very close observer of emerging challengers like OpenMoko.

The wall is starting to show cracks. Do the folks with sledge hammers arrive in 2007?

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It's not a given that a US GSM phone will work worldwide due to the variations in spectrum between US and worldwide. Non-US GSM, for example, uses a portion of the 902-928 MHz band that in the US is license-exempt.
He should switch carriers. My Nokia 6230 from Cingular plays any MP3 or AAC I want as a ring tone (I am using the finale to Sibelius' Kullervo ripped from a CD). It sends photos via Bluetooth with no restrictions, and unlike most so-called smartphones, the basic functionality is accessible without having to press twenty keystrokes in a perverse form of finger yoga.

I would certainly love to stick it to the cellcos. Their system of forced subsidies for handsets creates incredible waste (14 million cell phones discarded each year in California alone!), maintains their stranglehold on cell phone distribution and really ought to be declared a form of illegal bundling.
...his mobile phone (a) won't play self-generated ringtones (you have to buy them from the phone company)...

Check out the awesome Phonezoo beta (, which lets you upload music, snip out what you want and upload it to your phone as a ringtone. If my pre-teen daughter can do it (and she did), anyone can!

Disclaimer: I have no connection with Phonezoo.
The incumbent cell companies are responding to the WiFi threat in part by saying that WiFi uses so much power in contrast to CDMA/GSM, etc. that it's unworkable in many practical situations even where there is a hotspot. I'd be curious how Steve Stroh and other folks respond to this argument. I believe upcoming versions of 802.11 have better transmit power controls, so that's one response. Another may be that WiFi has greater bandwidth and that uses more energy. If you want more bandwidth, you've got to be willing to pay the price in terms of energy/battery usage.

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