On the Hot Seat with Sprint's Kevin Packingham

On the eve of the CTIA Wireless I.T. and Entertainment conference in San Francisco, FierceWireless editor-in-chief Sue Marek talked with Kevin Packingham, senior vice president, product and technology development at Sprint Nextel, about the company's open strategy and how it plans to reinvigorate its wireless data business.

FierceWireless: There is a lot of confusion about what is meant by open networks and open ecosystem. What does "open" mean to Sprint?

Packingham: Open has become the trendy description for a strategy. Every year we go through a different trend and 2008 it's open. There are two ways to approach this and these variations get confused. One variation is open access, which is the ability to take devices and recertify them on different networks. I don't think there is a huge opportunity there. I don't think that is something that a huge volume of subscribers are interested in doing. 

For the most part, carriers such as Sprint, Verizon and AT&T--we all optimize the devices for our networks so it's in the best interest of subscribers to get devices that are certified on the networks they were designed for. But there are a lot of third party devices and Sprint has been doing this for years and hasn't made that big of deal about it because it didn't seem that interesting from a media perspective--telemetry and MVNOs and other third parties get devices certified on the network and they aren't branded by Sprint.

FierceWireless: Would you consider the Amazon Kindle in this category?

Packingham: Yes, absolutely. This is a great example of a device--it doesn't fall into the pure open access--but it's something where we have formed a partnership to develop an experience that is not Sprint-branded. This hit the mark from a customer experience perspective. It was a huge win-win for Amazon and for us.

Where most people are spending their time right now is application development. There is a lot of buzz around it. The reality is Sprint launched our application developer program in 2001 and we were the first to have a developer program and to really work in an open Java framework for applications on our handsets.  It's something that we have been pushing toward for many years. We have evolved and learned to find ways to make it easier for developers to create services that will operate on mobile devices.  Why it's become trendy is that it used to be that four or five years ago something like a ringtone or game or screensaver was the biggest opportunity that there was for developing an application for a mobile device. That has started to shift with email and the success with Windows and Windows Mobile and now it's gone to a new extreme. There is really compelling content that is information oriented and social networking oriented. There are capabilities that have become robust through the Internet and customers expectations have started to rise so they want those services available to them in the mobile environment as well.

The mobile device is a powerful piece of equipment for a very personalized experience. The PC by nature is impersonal. But the mobile phone you carry around all the time and it's very intelligent in how it interacts with you. It knows your contacts and your calendar and it is something you interact with so frequently that the opportunity to take those services and use the mobile device as a platform is a huge evolutionary step for what trends we have seen on the Internet.

FierceWireless: So what is your strategy?

Packingham: What is core to the Sprint strategy is how we differ from our competitors. We embrace a long list of partners and an ecosystem that is very advanced and already aggressively growing in the Internet space and make those services available on the Sprint handset.  

We want to break down those barriers and make it simple for them to do it. Right now it is too challenging and too big of an investment for developers to go to the mobile space. As an industry there is an opportunity for us to make it easier for them and get some more compelling services on the phone so we can really see this massive growth in data adoption.

FierceWireless: But how do you make it easier? Mobile does make it more challenging.

Packingham: The first thing we did early this year was announce our open Web platform.  It's a network-based gateway where we do transcoding of HTML content. Traditionally if you wanted Web content on a mobile phone you would have had to have written it in WAP. This gateway will transcode HTML so it's backwards compatible and customers have access to all HTML content on the Internet.

You've gone from a very small portion of content on the Internet and massively exploded it to make it available to customers.  They can now view HTML on a standard phone. They don't have to buy a $500 phone. 

FierceWireless: So the developers can then use this gateway?

Packingham: That's true but don't just think about the mobile developer. Think about the guy who develops for the Internet. You can't make it too painful for him. You don't want him to have to hire developers that just do WAP because that's too hard for him. If it works on the Internet and on a Sprint phone we have dramatically lowered the barrier for him to make his service available on a Sprint phone.

FierceWireless: You also announced Sprint Web recently.

Packingham: Traditionally you flipped open your phone and you had a category of services but you had to be motivated to find a piece of content. Working with Changingworlds, we were able to create a personalized experience. If you open your Sprint phone you will get a very different experience than I will see if I look at my Sprint phone. It's a very intelligent platform. It learns about your interests and personal preferences and lets us bring information to the customer that we think is relevant to them. It just gets better and better so you don't have to go through this difficult process to navigate how to find these pieces of information. 

That is the second piece of the success of mobile--that is discoverability. You don't have to pay me for placement on the deck. Whatever is relevant to the customer we will get in front of them. That motivates developers to make content for the phone.

Another piece of this strategy is One-click. This is the branded name for it, it's a widget-based design for the standby screen. When you flip open the new series of phones we are launching for the holidays, rather than getting a static standby screen, we have all those services on the standby screen. Google is a featured partner on here and the Google widget is available on the standby screen. You can do a search, not to go buy games but a true Internet content search. You'll have access to YouTube and Google Maps. Google--because it's so personal and important to subscribers--is available on the standby screen. We will have 60 widgets available when we launch.

FierceWireless: Who designed this framework?

Packingham: We worked with Frog Design and it's a collaborative effort with the manufacturers also--Samsung, Sanyo, Qualcomm--and we have a big design shop internally.  

The goal was to create a targeted customer experience around usability. Our philosophy of open is to give our customers access to whatever is important to them. We would love for them to go to Sprint Music or Sprint Navigation but if they want to use Google Maps instead of Sprint Navigation that is more important to me than forcing them to want to use Sprint Maps. That's what One Click is about. They can take the phone and customize it in a way that is appropriate for them.

FierceWireless: You mentioned that this will be on your handsets for the holidays. What about future handsets? Will it be on all of them eventually?

Packingham: Yes, it will be on all the EVDO handsets but probably not the low-end handsets. This is a ground-breaking shift for us.

FierceWireless: You mentioned there were four parts to this strategy. What's the final element?

Packingham: The final thing is our migration toward a true Java-based platform. This framework opens up the true Java development platform. No longer is it just J2ME, which was the mobile version of it and it frustrated someone who was a true Java developer.  If we want true application developers to develop for mobile we have to take some of the pain out of it. That's what we have done. We have shifted toward creating something that works in parallel with Java so they don't have to rewrite their applications. You can port those applications to a mobile device without revamping it. It isn't something that happens right away, it's something that we are moving toward. We are moving away from proprietary or mobile-centric application environments and embracing the Internet as a development environment.

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