Wireless Carriers, Open Source Still At Odds - InformationWeek

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Government // Enterprise Architecture
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12/8/2009
12:12 PM
Serdar Yegulalp
Serdar Yegulalp
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Wireless Carriers, Open Source Still At Odds

That's the thesis behind a piece by Sascha Segan over at PC Magazine, where he blames a good deal of the lack of geek-friendly Linux handsets on the wireless carriers themselves. But how much of it is also end-user indifference?

That's the thesis behind a piece by Sascha Segan over at PC Magazine, where he blames a good deal of the lack of geek-friendly Linux handsets on the wireless carriers themselves. But how much of it is also end-user indifference?

From the article:

Linux the OS-the kernel, the memory manager-is attractive to phone manufacturers, Linux the philosophy-users banding together ad hoc to create new things-is anathema to wireless carriers.

... No carrier wants geeks. Geeks use up a lot of network resources, try to find ways around rules, and create problems for tech support. Every time a carrier has flirted with geeks, it has backed away.

I had made a similar observation a while back, when the open-source OpenMoko phone was still new and there seemed like a chance it would turn into the Next Big Tinkerer's Thing. But nothing happened.

Why nothing happened was twofold. One, the carriers resist anything tinkerer-friendly for all the reasons cited in the Segan article: they don't like anything they can't control, because anything they can't control can't be metered, and anything they can't meter can't have its pricing gauged to within an inch of its life. ("They didn't expect how much iPhone users would surf the Web, and look where that's gotten them," Segan points out.)

Two, there have been a lot of dead-wrong guesses about how much freedom people want with their handsets and carriers -- or, rather, what kind. The OpenMoko variety of freedom was too far off the map for most people. The iPhone, like the Mac itself, may be a walled garden, but the sheer amount of things to do within that walled garden more than make up for its insularity. (I propose an experiment. Put two people in a room, one who's jail-broken their iPhone and one who hasn't. Get them talking about the whole thing. See who tries to convince whom of what, and why, and how far they get. Take notes.)

The exception, the median between extremes, seems to be embodied in Android -- and while it hasn't broken through and achieved iPhone-like popularity, it's also still relatively new. The few folks I know who have opted for 'Droid phones love them, and what I've seen of it myself has been very compelling. When I've asked them what it is about 'Droid they like so much, they reply with something along the lines of "It's like the iPhone, but I don't have to pay the ridiculous amount of money Apple wants, or use a carrier I hate." Even when Apple loses, they still win by being a point of reference.

But again, through all of this, the carriers have always been the biggest obstacle. As Morpheus said in The Matrix, they are the gatekeepers. He was referring to the Agents, and while I doubt the carriers are that openly malevolent, they aren't going to abandon their post anytime soon.

Two things might change their position:

1. Changes in the law that affect how carriers do business. This isn't off the map, but you can expect any legal mandates for how carriers operate will be fought bitterly.

2. End-runs around their business model. This means things like replacing, however gradually, cell connections with public wi-fi. It's already happened on a tiny scale -- T-Mobile does this with many of their phones and in-house wireless routers already -- but it's going to be really tough to make it happen on the kind of scale that would allow most anyone to swap one for the other. File under "wishful thinking."

A third thing comes to mind: getting consumers to demand more open-endedness on the part of their carriers. But when it comes to phones, most consumers don't seem overly interested in the advantages that Linux professes to offer them -- in much the same way they've generally shrugged at Linux-based netbooks.

I suspect what we have here is not a carrier problem, but the much larger problem of user apathy. If there's a cure for that, I haven't heard about it yet.

Our "A New IT Manifesto" report looks at a variety of new approaches and technologies that let IT rebels take on a whole new role, enhancing their companies' competitiveness and engaging their entire organizations more intimately with customers. Download the report here (registration required).

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