Mobile Web leaders push for open standards

The current morass of proprietary handheld devices, closed-off carrier networks, and specialised wireless applications must be eliminated if the mobile Internet is to become as powerful and ubiquitous as it should someday be.


The technological barriers and business models that have led to the current morass of proprietary handheld devices, closed-off carrier networks, and specialised wireless applications must be eliminated if the mobile Internet is to become as powerful and ubiquitous as it should someday be, according to industry leaders.

Content providers, applications developers, and mobile carriers, along with standards backers like Tim Berners-Lee -- the so-called father of the World Wide Web -- stumped for greater openness in the platforms being used to develop future wireless online systems at the ongoing Mobile Internet World conference in Boston on Wednesday.

While the lion's share today's of mobile Web applications do not work across multiple devices, wireless service plans, and software environments, the potential of the mobile Internet will only be realised when providers across the industry shift from proprietary systems to open standards, experts presenting at the conference said.

Representatives from carrier Sprint Nextel, phone maker Nokia, applications vendor Opera, and even content producer MTV pledged their commitments at the conference to embrace the call of industry leaders like Berners-Lee to move away from the proprietary systems they have previously fostered and to adopt more standards-based platforms.

Frequently referencing the launch of Google's Android mobile Linux software environment -- meant to help developers and carriers build applications and services that work across large numbers of different devices -- as a rallying point for the larger industry, nearly every speaker at the inaugural Mobile Internet World conference echoed the calls for a shift away from closed systems.
"The most important thing about the Web is that it is universal, that it can run on any hardware, use any software, in any language, and be used by people with disabilities," Berners-Lee said to a packed room of several hundred attendees.

"At the [World Wide Web Consortium], we've been focused on using standards, and it's very important that the mobile Internet platforms use the same standards," he said. "We've already seen a number of false starts where that didn't happen, and what people are realising is that if you make yourself into a walled garden and block out everything from the outside, you find in the end that the flowers all grow on the outside."

Berners-Lee said that his invention of the World Wide Web would have never had the same unilateral influence and adoption that it has enjoyed if it had been created only to work on a certain type of device or operating system.

"It was crucial that you didn't have to ask anyone for permission to put a new application on the network. If you had to do that, the Internet wouldn't have grown, and the World Wide Web as we know it wouldn't have happened," he said. "It's very important that it was designed as an open platform, not something which tried to control or extract money from what's built on top of it."

For the mobile Internet to flourish, said the expert, carriers, along with applications and device makers, must see the larger opportunity that will exist if they are able to abandon their closed-off networks, handhelds, and programs and buy into the open standards approach, he said.

"Under this open model, you will end up making money not because you have a large piece of the cake, but because the cake is enormous," said Berners-Lee. "If you bet on standards and they don't happen, you haven't really lost a lot, but if you do bet on them and they take off, whoa."

In the United States, carriers in particular have been accused of halting broader development and adoption of mobile Web tools based on their business models that have mostly allowed only those programs developed by their partners to find a way onto the devices and services they support.

Google's Android and Open Handset Alliance popularise open standards

However, even those carriers who have profited most from this arrangement understand that the adoption of standards and open-source development tools will have the ecosystem effect evangelised by Berners-Lee and others standards-backers, said Jack Dziak, senior vice president of corporate strategy at Sprint Nextel.

Sprint Nextel has proven its intent to fall in line with standards efforts in part through its participation in the Open Handset Alliance (OHA), launched by Google in coordination with the introduction of Android, he said.

"Open source is a truly powerful development opportunity, and we will have to embrace it wholeheartedly," Dziak said. "It's an opportunity to create a new economy and open the door to new growth for us and the industry."

Efforts like the OHA will provide support for the underlying software that Sprint Nextel believes will "alter how devices work and how applications are developed," the executive said.

Among the other strategies the carrier is pursuing to benefit new innovation in the mobile Web space is the planned launch of its Xohm WiMax services, which will potentially open devices to a whole new range of content services, "whether we control them or not," said Dziak.

Rich Miner, vice president of wireless strategy at Google, said that response to Android and the OHA has been overwhelmingly positive as industry players appear to have warmed up quickly to the search giant's effort to create a new focal point for open development for handhelds and applications.

"One of the refreshing things is that we have a large, broad alliance joining to build this platform, the message of openness is resonating, and carriers and device [manufacturers] realise that embracing openness doesn't mean they lose control," Miner said. "This type of effort allows them to balance their interests with the benefits of openness, such as driving a lot more innovation; they understand that they will end up with many more developers who are able to take full advantage of the platform."

Mobile applications makers and content providers have struggled mightily in the past with the decisions they have been forced to make in tailoring any products or services they launch to run on the disparate devices and services currently on the market, most of which have been walled-off in proprietary networks.

Such companies will truly welcome the adoption of open mobile Web standards as they believe the platforms will take away those barriers and allow them to create more robust applications that can run on any device, or any carrier network, said Greg Clayman, executive vice president of digital distribution and business development at MTV Networks.

"It's hard to understate the importance of openness in mobile devices and platforms. We must move beyond the carrier-controlled devices and applications model," Clayman said. "There's already an entire world of consumer devices out there for us to take advantage of, and that will only be possible if we open mobile platforms; the Web itself flourished primarily because of its underlying concepts of openness to everyone and anyone."

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