Open networks remain a distant nirvana for mobile users

Google and others are pushing for wireless freedom of choice. Don't hold your breath.

The push for open wireless networks that can accommodate all manner of mobile devices and applications grabbed a lot of headlines last year. But true mobile openness remains a distant, and perhaps unachievable, nirvana.

For now, mobile users aren't appreciably better off from an openness standpoint than they were at the start of 2008. And that likely won't change for years to come, according to Jack Gold, an analyst at J.Gold Associates LLC in Northboro, Mass. " 'Open' still has a long way to go," Gold said.

The dim assessment by Gold and other mobile-industry analysts comes despite recent moves by Google Inc., the Federal Communications Commission and other organizations aimed at making it possible to run any application on any device on any network.

While that level of openness may never be reached, the FCC did set aside part of the 700-MHz wireless spectrum for open network access as part of an auction that was completed last March. Google was instrumental in lobbying for the inclusion of the open-access rules in the auction process.

In addition, Google last year pushed forward its Android mobile software platform through the Open Handset Alliance, which released an open-source version of the Android code in October. And last month, the alliance added 14 members, including network operators Softbank Mobile Corp. and Vodafone Group PLC and handset makers such as Toshiba Corp. and Sony Ericsson Mobile Communications AB. That increased the alliance's membership to 47 companies.

Also, the first Android-based cell phone, the T-Mobile G1, was jointly introduced in September by Google, T-Mobile USA Inc. and hardware maker HTC Corp. Even before the G1's debut and the open-sourcing of Android, other vendors reacted. For example, Nokia Corp. in June announced plans to make its Symbian mobile operating system an open and royalty-free platform.

Despite such forward momentum, open is still a relative term in the mobile market. One paradox of Google's openness campaign is that even the G1 is locked to T-Mobile USA's network. Similarly, the iPhone is locked to AT&T Inc.'s mobile network in the U.S., and Research In Motion Ltd.'s new BlackBerry Storm works only on the Verizon Wireless network.

A Cluttered Market

Meanwhile, software developers still have to separately design their applications to run on as many as six major mobile operating systems, with Windows Mobile and Palm OS also in the mix. For example, as attractive as Apple Inc.'s iPhone App Store is, the applications available there won't work on other phones unless they're specifically written for those devices as well.

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