‘Tis the season to be open*

*Caveat applies.

Google is open. Verizon and AT&T Wireless are now open. Symbian has always been about openess. Nokia is commited to an open approach. Almost every mobile device supports Java or WAP, both of which are said to be open.

So if our industry is awash with openess, why is the door to consumer choice still so frequently closed by technological incompatibility?

Anyone who’s followed the news flow of the mobile business in recent months could be forgiven for thinking we are blessed with a uniquely utopian industry which exists merely to share its intellectual property.

I’d like to hear from any company who hasn’t had their PR department issue a press release containing the word ‘open’ in the last six months.

Conversely, I’d also like to hear from companies who have been talking about their commitment to openess. Please explain, in words that the average consumer on the street will understand, what ‘open’ really means for the customer.

I mean it, please email me (marekpawlowski@pmn.co.uk) or add your comment to this article on our MEX blog. I’m quite happy to respect any requests for anonymity if you’d rather not have your name or your company’s name associated with the response.

I’d like to recommend an instructive exercise for anyone who’s currently pushing their company’s open approach. Bring together a balanced focus group comprising the kind of customers who might end up using your technology. And by balanced, I don’t mean your tech-savvy friends in the industry, I mean 10 people from all walks of life and across a variety of age groups. Talk to them about your ‘open’ strategy and see what their response is.

I’ve been exploring this with some consumers recently and have found the responses quite insightful:

“You mean its open to the internet? Does that mean I can get viruses?”

“Like when I get Bluetoothed by shops? That’s annoying. I switched that off.”

“Open phones? No, I don’t like those flip phones I prefer my old Nokia stick.”

If you ever needed an example of the disconnect between the language spoken by the industry and the language used by its customers, these responses are the perfect example.

This article should not be interpretted as an attack on openess as a concept. There are enormous benefits to the industry in adopting an approach which allows greater freedom of choice in the components, software and networks we use to deliver products to the customer. This kind of strategy can help to reduce production costs and improve time-to-market efficiencies by simplifying integration and encouraging competition. In doing so, it should allow more time for each player in the value chain to concentrate on adding innovation in its core area of expertise, rather than having to waste time making things work with incompatible systems.

However, my great fear is that the term ‘open’ enters the industry’s consumer marketing vocabulary. Quite apart from having no constructive meaning for most customers, it is also a false promise. There is no operator, handset manufacturer, operating system provider or application developer which can claim its products will work with with any and all of the products available, even within the limits of one particular national market.

Perhaps the openess we’ve all been talking about recently is better defined as a state of mind rather than a specific commitment?

Verizon, the second largest US operator, stated that it would open its network to any device and any application. However, in practice this means it is setting up a testing centre which will allow and encourage more companies to submit products for approval on the Verizon network.

AT&T Wireless, the largest carrier in the US, felt compelled to respond. Ralph de la Vega, the company’s CEO, told USA Today: “We are the most open wireless company in the industry.” In practice, nothing has actually changed in the way AT&T does business, but the company wanted to highlight the fact the GSM SIM card system allows users to buy unlocked devices, install their AT&T SIM and the phone will work on their network.

Google has built the Android operating system using Linux and announced it will make it freely available under an open source license. However, the product also uses a Java virtual machine that has been tweaked with Google’s proprietary APIs, further adding to the fragmentation issues faced by developers. I’d say it is a safe bet that few applications built for the J2ME used by most of today’s mobile devices will work first time on Android phones.

The story is the same with almost any company you talk to. There is always a caveat attached to the term ‘open’. It is impossible for it to be any other way. The very nature of competitive markets ensures that as soon as one system emerges to address a particular customer need, another company will spring up with a competing approach in the hope of stealing some of their market share.

Inevitably this gives rise to a scenario where companies seek to lock you into a particular system, either through commercial or technological factors. There is nothing inherently wrong with this – often it is a quick way to deliver a useful product to customers and make money from doing so.

However, the industry risks great damage to its reputation if companies embark on a public relations battle to declare themselves the ‘most open’. The first result will be customer confusion: put simply, no one will know what we’re talking about. Most damaging of all, it will create unrealistic expectations: what are we going to tell the man who wants to run a cool iPhone app on his Blackberry or the lady who can’t connect her CDMA handset to a GSM network that’s offering a better deal?

Let’s invest our energies in improving the way the value chain works together and delivers products; trumpeting an industry term to an uninterested public is a waste of time and money.

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