What is open anyway?

If you want to come away with one theme from the CTIA Wireless I.T. & Entertainment show, it's that wireless networks are opening up.  But if you want to understand exactly what that means, you're going to have to do some more probing.

During the opening keynote roundtable Wednesday with the CEOs from three of the top four wireless carriers, it appeared that some operators will focus on opening the network to devices (Verizon Wireless) while others will likely focus more on applications (Sprint and T-Mobile).  AT&T, unfortunately, did not participate in the panel.

Sprint Nextel CEO Dan Hesse's vision of open echoed what Kevin Packingham, Sprint's senior vice president of product and technology development told me during my interview with him earlier this week. Namely, that Sprint believes that customers want the same accessibility to the Internet from their mobile device that they get from their personal computer.  And while operators can offer customers their own white-label mapping services or other types of applications, customers ultimately want a choice. To get to that type of world, Sprint is working hard to help customers get easier access to the mobile Web through personalization and customization.

T-Mobile's strategy is a bit less clear to me. During the keynote, CEO Robert Dotson talked about how important it is to have open devices and open applications. He touted the fact that the company uses GSM-based technology so many consumers can already use third-party devices on the T-Mobile network by putting a T-Mobile SIM card in the phone. He also expounded how the carrier hopes to "unleash innovation" through its new developer program and the importance of supporting open source operating systems.

Verizon Wireless, meanwhile, is focusing (at least initially) on opening its network to devices. That strategy was explained to me in further detail by Verizon's vice president of open development Anthony Lewis (look for my full interview with Lewis next week in FierceWireless). Lewis said that while applications are a big part of the open equation and will likely result in big business for the operator, Verizon believes the key is to first act as a catalyst for the device makers by making it easier for them to get their devices certified and operating on the network. To truly understand Verizon's strategy, you have to broaden your concept of a device and think beyond handsets and PC cards. "Start thinking what it would be like if every thermostat was connected to the network," said Verizon CEO Lowell McAdam. "What if the airline industry put sensors on engines in aircraft to predict failures before they happen? ...This will impact the way people live and manage their lives."

Three different carriers, three different strategies for open access. The good news is that operators are finally talking about open networks and open applications. The bad news is that there is still more work to be done to turn the theories and visions into reality.  --Sue