Wednesday, 2 July 2008

I want dumb pipes. (And you should too)

In the next year, open source mobile operating systems like Symbian and Android are going to shake things up in a big way. Already, leigions of developers are furiously coding away, trying to build the next qik, google mobile maps or fring. And that's good news. But until mobile network operators get with the times, the party isn't really going to kick off.

At the moment, my mobile phone is a Nokia E65. It's got a screen, a keyboard and a data connection. Sounds a lot like a computer. But my network operator O2 - one of the more progressive networks, it must be said - is totally out of line with what I want a network operator to be. I want them to be an ISP. A dumb pipe that delivers data to the computer in my pocket.

Plusnet, the ISP that I buy residential broadband from is a great company. For a little money each month they deliver zeros and ones to my laptop. They don't try to sell me any MP3's. They don't want to subsidize the computer I use to get online. And they don't pre-determine which portion of the zeros and ones should be allocated to emails, VOIP or web browsing. To them, I'm not a racoon, a camel, an O2-200 or any other daft label. I'm just a customer that wants data. If I download something that breaks my system, it's my fault and it's my problem. They treat me like an adult and if they started a mobile phone network I'd sign up. They're a lovely, lovely dumb pipe.

Now consider the O2 model. They sell me a tiny computer made by Nokia and subsidize the cost by tying me into a lengthy contract. Then some of the zeros and ones that they sell me are labeled "Voice." Others, "SMS" and others - and this is priceless - are labeled "Data." But it's all data. Every bit of it. So why can't O2 just sell me a lump of data and let me decide how to split it up?

Open source operating systems are going to prompt some wonderful advances in mobile applications, but they're not going to be enough. Until the core flaw in the user/network relationship is sorted out, the mobile computing revolution isn't going to happen.