Ovi, OHA, Android, iPhone SDK - there's been a lot of buzz recently in the cellular world about open platforms, open standards, and open phones. But will any of these strangely named software stacks, corporate alliances, and branded ecosystems actually mean anything to consumers anytime soon? Will all of this hullabaloo actually result in better phones that are easier to customize, extend, and even use on whatever carrier you choose?
Yes, we'll see better phones that do more and do it more intuitively.
No, I don't think we'll see a significant move towards unlocked handsets that can move from carrier to carrier. At least not in the US, and at least not in the next year - though I hope I'm wrong.
And it doesn't look like we're going to see a "free if you can put up with some ads" Gphone anytime soon, either.
I think we're already seeing a trend towards more powerful devices that are also easier to use. Apple kickstarted this with iPhone - while I don't doubt that other manufacturers were already working on better UIs for their smartphones, the enormous buzz over iPhone and it's groundbreaking combination of a state-of-the-art touchscreen with truly intuitive software definitely pushed everyone else to get their acts into gear. The HTC-built Touch (Sprint) and Shadow (T-Mobile), along with the forthcoming LG Voyager and Venus (Verizon) are the first wave of what will be many, many more US-carrier supported phones to feature advanced functionality and well thought-out, easy to use interfaces. Well, better thought-out, easier to use interfaces, anyway.
Google's entry into the marketplace will only continue the trend. Google's made a name on the Web with very simple, easy to use interfaces fronting speedy, sophisticated technology for everything from search to ads to maps. While Google will not be making a phone anytime soon, opting instead to distribute their Mobile OS to whoever wants to build with it, it's hard to imagine a Google-powered handset being overly complicated to use. And Google CEO Eric Schmidt made it pretty clear that while a carrier could choose to build a totally locked-down Android phone, he imagines that scenario unlikely, imagining instead a fleet of very extendable, programmable devices instead.
That doesn't, however, mean anything when it comes to the American pastime of signing up for two year contracts in order to get locked-to-one-carrier phones for cheap. For all the talk of simpler smartphones, more hackable handsets, and next generation features, most mainstream consumers are more concerned with "free after rebate" than "open platform" when it comes to buying a new cell phone. The current issue of RCR Wireless News features the headline, "Passionate subset seeks unlocked phones," and that couldn't be more true. For every geek like me interested in hacking his iPhone to work on T-Mobile with his cheap, hacked data plan, there are five or more consumers who just want the best phone they can get for free by re-upping their Verizon contract.
So I think 2008 will see a continuation of smartphone features creeping downward into "feature phones," and the rise of lower cost, easier to use smartphones for the masses. Keep an eye on T-Mobile and Sprint, the smallest of the major US carriers, and the only two announced as members of Google's Open Handset Alliance to date. And I think we'll see some movement in the industry towards unlocked devices designed to be developed/hacked/extended by the open source community. But don't expect the end of "free with two year contract" sales in the US just yet.