Is open the new closed?

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Is open the new closed?

I'm trying to be optimistic about the Verizon Wireless "Any Apps, Any Device" initiative, but try as I might, I can't shake the feeling that it sounds too good to be true. A year from now, Verizon Wireless' network will support any application and any device that meet certain as yet undefined technical specifications. This from the carrier that Columbia professor, and open access proponent, Tim Wu dubbed the "most closed" of the big carriers.

Most pundits have called the announcement an "about-face" for the carrier, but I think Verizon Wireless is just looking over its shoulder. It sees Sprint with its planned WiMAX network, which is an open access network. It hears Google repeating "open, open, open" when referring to any and every wireless initiative it rolls out. And it sees rival AT&T offering the most coveted mobile phone the industry has ever seen-the Apple iPhone. We can't keep up with the whims of the wireless user anymore, Verizon says, so it's time to open up.

So far, Verizon Wireless has only made a careful promise to open its network by the end of next year. The industry won't get a peak at the "approval process" devices and applications must go through before making it onto the open network until next spring, when the carrier releases its technical requirements. An "approval process" sounds a bit like a closed door to me.

Nitpicking aside, Verizon Wireless president and CEO Lowell McAdam characterized the FCC's "open access" rules for the upcoming 700 MHz spectrum auction as "an experiment" in an interview with the Wall Street Journal back in July.

"This is an experiment the FCC wants to do," McAdam said at the time. "We'll do it, but we won't be able to guarantee those customers much other than that the network will operate properly."

The tone is still telling. "We'll do it, but…." McAdam went on to reserve the right for Verizon to block certain applications and features for the phones it sells-regardless of open access rules for other devices. The FCC never made it clear whether all devices on the C-Block of spectrum from the 700 MHz auction will have to allow any applications, or just third party devices. Google argued that it meant all devices. Now, Verizon Wireless is reshaping the open access debate in its favor--reshaping it by closing it up. Just a bit. -Brian