2008 Year in Review: Mobile operators continue to open their networks

For a word with such a relatively simple dictionary definition, it's clear that "open" means many radically different things to U.S. operators. Still, there's little question that carriers nurtured a far more accessible and transparent working environment in 2008 than ever before, unlocking selected platforms, codes and resources to third-party developers in an effort to stimulate the creation of new applications and services. Among the highlights: After promising open access by late 2008, Verizon Wireless joined the LiMo Foundation open handset consortium and promised to introduce phones based on the mobile Linux OS, and later certified the first device to run its Open Development Initiative gauntlet. In addition, T-Mobile USA introduced its T-Mobile devPartner Community program, vowing third-party mobile applications developers would experience an easier and more efficient channel to do business with the operator. And, just this month, Sprint opened up its location services platform.

Still, a consistent working definition of "open" networks remains elusive. A roundtable keynote discussion at the CTIA Wireless I.T. & Entertainment 2008 event in September offered little clarity. According to Sprint Nextel CEO Dan Hesse, an open network is not "regulated Internet" but instead a world where the customer can use the operator's fledgling OneClick widget as a means access to mobile web as a whole, and not just sites predetermined by the company. However, Hesse said Sprint wants to maintain device authorization, adding that the firm does have many devices on its network not necessarily purchased through the Sprint network, such as the Amazon Kindle or a phone from one of its MVNO partners. For T-Mobile USA, the open equation hinges on the carrier unlocking innovation and giving developers true network transparency--CEO Robert Dotson said the company will advocate an open source operating system via Google's Android OS and will collaborate with the Open Handset Alliance industry group to accelerate device authorization. As for Verizon Wireless, open access is driven by what the consumer wants--CEO Lowell McAdam said wireless carriers need to "open the doors but protect the network," or else hinder innovation. The open access genie is now out of the bottle, but here's hoping that 2009 offers more rock and less talk.