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2/16/2007
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Cellular Policies Inhibit Innovation: Professor

A Columbia law professor is calling for the government to force cellular service providers to change business policies he claims are inhibiting innovation in cell phone design.

SAN JOSE, Calif. — A Columbia law professor is calling for the government to force cellular service providers to change business policies he claims are inhibiting innovation in cellphone design. Timothy Wu posted an opinion paper on his views that is already drawing raves from at least one top cellphone designer.

In a synopsis of his paper, Wu claims "wireless carriers [are] aggressively controlling product design and innovation in the equipment and application markets, to the detriment of consumers."

Wu calls on Washington to make carriers ban their practice of only enabling handsets they have approved and locked to their networks. Carriers are using the practice to block or control the roll out of handset features including Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, GPS, advanced SMS, browsers, legal photo and sound file transfer capabilities and call timers, he said.

Carriers should be forced to let any device be attached to their networks. He cites earlier rulings that forced the AT&T telephone monopoly to let consumers buy wired phones from third parties.

Separately, he said carriers are stunting growth of wireless applications software by not creating clear software standards for their networks. "The industry should work together to create clear and unified standards to which developers can work," he wrote.

Finally, he said carriers bill themselves as providers of "unlimited broadband" but in reality they often create walled gardens that block users from accessing legitimate Internet sites.

"He's absolutely right, he nailed everything," said Jeff Hawkins, a founder of Palm Inc. and designer of its Treo smartphone and Palm Pilot PDA.

"We can't build the products we want to build, charge for them what we want and add the services we want. It's just a really broken system," Hawkins said. Wu "wants to take the Internet sensibilities to the wireless world," he added.

Hawkins said designers chafe at the various hardware and software locking mechanisms beyond SIM cards that carriers require handset makers to build into their phones.

"We don't want to do this. It makes it hard to build and test phones. We need special tools to do all this stuff," Hawkins said.

Wu's Web site said the paper was presented to the Federal Trade Commission on Wednesday (Feb. 14). "This is the kind of thing government should be looking into," said Hawkins.

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