Is fear the driving factor behind carriers' 'open' claims?

Sue MarekBARCELONA, Spain--Inclement weather may have wreaked havoc on some U.S. conference-goers' flights, but crowds of wireless executives still flocked to the Mobile World Congress annual confab here this week. Some press conferences on Monday felt sparsely attended, but the show floor was surprisingly crowded and bustling.

Some events even managed to attract overflow crowds, including the Microsoft press conference on Monday, where many reporters had to view CEO Steve Ballmer's remarks via a simulcast in an adjoining room. And the keynote address Tuesday evening featuring Google CEO Eric Schmidt drew a huge crowd, with attendees lining up early and jockeying to get a seat in the overflowing auditorium.

Not surprisingly, "open" was a common theme at the show. In a keynote address Tuesday morning, Vodafone CEO Vittorio Colao touted his company's openness to content providers, app stores and application developers while also chastising companies like Google and Yahoo! for what he considers their potentially monopolistic hold on the Internet search and advertising market. And Vodafone was not alone. Newly minted GSMA member Verizon Wireless also pushed its open message during a press conference with Skype announcing a custom Skype Mobile application for its smartphones.

But not everyone fell for the "open" mantra.  Alcatel-Lucent CEO Ben Verwayyen said during his keynote address that followed Colao: "Everyone claims to be open. Fine. But who is going to stand up here and say, 'I am closed?' Fine, we are open. But where is the business model?"

I suspect fear is behind all the claims of "openness." When I heard about the GSMA's Wholesale Applications Community, which was admittedly thrown together at the last minute by board members on Sunday, I wondered what was the reasoning behind the rushed proposal. Specifics of the initiative are very vague. But the members, which include 24 operator partners and a handful of manufacturers, claim they will make it easier for app developers to create applications across multiple networks.

Perhaps this rushed proposal is a reaction to worries over wireless' place in the wider business scene. Research from Nielsen Research and commissioned by Tellabs, which surveyed 15,000 consumers across 15 countries, found that most consumers believe that media organizations, digital services providers and software developers are more appropriate application providers than mobile operators. More than 63 percent said that within the next six months they will use mobile applications tailored to their personal preferences, location, time of day and social setting. But the kicker is that consumers don't expect to get these services from their carrier--they expect to get them from the likes of Google and Facebook.

Clearly wireless operators are trying to put some order to the chaos of the fragmented application development space. But this difficult task is not just motivated by the need to help developers and propel the industry. I think the main driver behind this community is the fear that if operators don't drive this initiative, someone else will. --Sue