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Linux for Suits

Why an iPhone When We Can Make Our Own Open Phone?

Doc Searls

Issue #156, April 2007

Let's break up the cell-phone silos, for everybody's good.

I'm writing this in the aftermath of the 2007 Consumer Electronics Show. I attend CES every year, because it's always a treasure trove of interesting Linux stories and use cases (a few of which appear in the UpFront section of LJ this month), and also because it's always fun to see what's happening with a large old industry that's changing a lot more slowly than the annual hype suggests.

Many consumer electronics “revolutions” aren't. Such will likely be case this year with the arrival of Apple's new iPhone. I don't know if scheduling MacWorld and CES for the same week happened by accident or intent, but the effect was predictable: Steve Jobs' customarily charismatic and news-packed opening keynote at MacWorld upstaged all of CES—a tradeshow exceeded in size only by Europe's CeBIT.

The biggest news in Steve Jobs' speech was the iPhone. He called it “a revolutionary product...that changes everything”. He said it would cause a revolution on the scale of the Macintosh in 1984 and the iPod in 2001. He even said the iPhone qualified as not one but “three revolutionary products”. These were 1) “a wide-screen iPod with touch controls”, 2) “a revolutionary mobile phone” and 3) “a breakthrough Internet communications device”. He contrasted it with “smartphones”, such as the Trio, Blackberry, Nokia E62 and Moto Q, all of which feature keyboards that “are there whether you want them or not”.

The iPhone is faced with a large, sharp color screen and a patented pointing system called MultiTouch that lets you use multiple fingers to do all kinds of stuff. (Except, of course, punching phone numbers without looking at them, because all the numbers are displayed behind a layer of clear tactile camouflage.) In the Apple tradition, controls are minimal; there's a single button on the front and few others elsewhere.

At the top of techie conversation at CES was news that the phone would run on Apple's BSD-based OS X and support “desktop class” applications. That claim, and the one about iPhone being a “revolutionary Internet communications device”, fueled hope that Apple would help break the cell-phone industry out of the phone-maker/carrier silos that have trapped customers inside and kept independent developers outside for the duration. In a post on the Linux Journal Web site, I wrote:

Knock what's closed about the iPhone all you want; it's still a computer with a mike, a screen, a speaker and a pile of other input and output openings that invite developments of many kinds. That's why I think iPhone is going make the cell-phone market a lot bigger. It will encourage participation by developers and customers that have until now been forced to cope with far less than they've wanted from the cell-phone industry. And that includes all the legacy cell-phone players with which Apple now partners or competes.

I should have known better. In fact, I did, but ignored my inner cynic.

Back in 1997, when Steve Jobs returned to Apple after a long hiatus, one of his first moves was to kill off clones of the company's hardware. In the midst of the outcry that followed, I wrote this to Dave Winer, who published it on his own site (www.scripting.com/davenet/stories/DocSearlsonSteveJobs.html):

So Steve Jobs just shot the cloners in the head, indirectly doing the same to the growing percentage of Mac users who preferred cloned Mac systems to Apple's own. So his message to everybody was no different than it was at Day One: all I want from the rest of you is your money and your appreciation for my Art.

It was a nasty move, but bless his ass: Steve's Art has always been first class, and priced accordingly. There was nothing ordinary about it. The Mac “ecosystem” Steve talks about is one that rises from that Art, not from market demand or other more obvious forces. And that Art has no more to do with developers, customers and users than Van Gogh's has to do with Sotheby's, Christie's and art collectors.

See, Steve is an elitist and an innovator, and damn good at both. His greatest achievements are novel works of beauty and style. The Apple I and II were Works of Woz; but Lisa, Macintosh, NeXT and Pixar were all Works of Jobs. Regardless of their market impact (which in the cases of Lisa and NeXT were disappointing), all four were remarkable artistic achievements. They were also inventions intended to mother necessity—and reasonably so. That's how all radical innovations work. (Less forward marketers, including Bill Gates, wait for necessity to mother invention, and the best of those invent and implement beautifully, even though that beauty is rarely appreciated.)

To Steve, clones are the drag of the ordinary on the innovative. All that crap about cloners not sharing the cost of R&D is just rationalization. Steve puts enormous value on the engines of innovation. Killing off the cloners just eliminates a drag on his own R&D, as well as a way to reposition Apple as something closer to what he would have made the company if he had been in charge through the intervening years.

The simple fact is that Apple always was Steve's company, even when he wasn't there. The force that allowed Apple to survive more than a decade of bad leadership, cluelessness and constant mistakes was the legacy of Steve's original Art. That legacy was not just an OS that was ten years ahead of the rest of the world, but a Cause that induced a righteousness of purpose centered around a will to innovate—to perpetuate the original artistic achievements. And in Steve's absence, Apple did some righteous innovation too. Eventually, though, the flywheels lost mass and the engine wore out.

In the end, by when too many of the innovative spirits first animated by Steve had moved on to WebTV and Microsoft, all that remained was that righteousness, and Apple looked and worked like what it was: a church wracked by petty politics and a pointless yet deeply felt spirituality.

Now Steve is back, and gradually renovating his old company. He'll do it his way, and it will once again express his Art.

These things I can guarantee about whatever Apple makes from this point forward:

  1. It will be original.

  2. It will be innovative.

  3. It will be exclusive.

  4. It will be expensive.

  5. Its aesthetics will be impeccable.

  6. The influence of developers, even influential developers like you, will be minimal. The influence of customers and users will be held in even higher contempt.

  7. The influence of fellow business artisans, such as Larry Ellison (and even Larry's nemesis, Bill Gates), will be significant, though secondary at best to Steve's own muse.

Ten years later, I can look back on that as one of the most prophetic pieces I've ever written.

Steven Levy of Newsweek (and the author of Hackers and many other books) reported this about his conversation with Jobs after the iPhone announcement:

But it's not like the walled garden has gone away. “You don't want your phone to be an open platform”, meaning that anyone can write applications for it and potentially gum up the provider's network, says Jobs. “You need it to work when you need it to work. Cingular doesn't want to see its West Coast network go down because some application messed up.”

Hmm...I have a Trio here that's full of third-party apps that don't bring down Verizon's network. Other Trios run third-party apps that don't bring down Cingular's network either. Still, whether or not Jobs is bogus on the subject of apps and networks, he clearly wants to keep the iPhone closed from outside developers.

This makes sense. In spite of Apple's support for open source and open standards (and its contributions are not trivial), the company always has played closed games with customers and developers. The original Macintosh was so closed to customers that opening it required a long-shaft torx screwdriver and a special case spreader. And, developers have rarely had much choice other than to work exclusively in Apple's development environments.

Now, in the case of the iPhone, there won't be a development environment. Apparently. I do know a number of people who think Apple is just stalling at this point, because the phone isn't due out until June, and it isn't in a position yet to produce an SDK. But, even if that's the case, the facts on the face of this thing make one thing very clear: Apple isn't going to bust any phone-maker/carrier silos. On the contrary, it's going to build a new silo of its own with Cingular—the carrier with which it signed an exclusive partnership deal. So, it's just another jail with a prettier lock.

Now, what to do?

A hint came in the form of a story in the New York Times, about how passengers in Japan use cell phones to speed check-in at airports. The airline ANA is using a system called skip in Japan and is working with Star Alliance partners (which include United, Lufthansa and British Airways) on extending the service, which does away with paper boarding passes. What's interesting about this isn't the system, but the fact that airlines use it for relating directly to customers, regardless of phone-maker or cell system carrier. In other words, it's not about a deal between ANA and Nokia/Verizon or Motorola/Sprint. It's a way for ANA to relate directly with customers.

This hint encourages development of apps that disintermediate phone-makers and pipe-controllers by putting customers and vendors into direct contact, for the good of everybody involved.

Cell phones are much more personal than computers. In fact, they may be the most personal technology ever created—as well as the most social. Why should the market benefits of cell phones' personal and social powers be restricted to phone-maker/carrier silo partners? In the long run, they can't. There are simply too many benefits for too many businesses—as well as customers—once these silos open up.

Can we get a sense of how many more market categories there can be, and how much more business will grow around cell phones, once the silos open up?

Yes—by looking at vertical market examples. A good one is the university-student cell-phone market. Here, a company called Rave Wireless (disclosure: I consult them) works with universities to replace their once-lucrative but now-dead wireline phone business with their own cell systems. The phones might be made by Nokia (or anybody) and the carrier might be Cingular (or anybody), but the system is independent of both. Instead, it exists for the purpose of serving relationships within the university community—between teachers and students, students and each other, students and local businesses, sports teams and fans. Rave not only provides a raft of handy (even essential) applications for its phone users, but it also provides a platform where students (or anybody using Rave phones) can write their own applications.

Students can form “entourages” of groups around classes, fraternities, dorm floors or whatever social collections they like. Teachers can text students with schedule changes. Students can text local businesses to see, for example, which pizza parlor can set a table for nine right after a game is over. They can check bus schedules or use built-in GPS monitoring when sending an emergency message to campus police. The list of applications developed by both Rave and students is long and growing. This is made possible not only by Rave's entrepreneurial smarts, but by freedom from restrictions imposed by the customary phone-maker/carrier silo agreements as well.

Rave can drive system-opening deals with both phone-makers and carriers, because it comes to both with a large base of ready customers. It turns out that phone-makers will make a custom phone if the order is big enough. And, it also turns out that carriers will open their systems for the same reason. Both still make money—but not just with each other and their co-captive customers. Instead, they open a whole new market ecosystem that gets bigger for everybody.

I normally avoid writing about companies I consult, but the example Rave Wireless provides is too important to overlook. And, I'm not hustling them. Instead, I'm hustling something Rave's example encourages us to think about: an open-phone marketplace, populated by rapidly evolving and differentiating phone gear—with a proliferation of applications to run on it and services to support it. In the long run, that's where we're headed anyway. I'd like us to shorten the distance.

Where can we start? One place is with phones. I'm familiar with two open Linux-based phone platforms: Trolltech's Greenphone and the OpenMoko (profiled in the February 2007 issue of Linux Journal). There can be many more, including gear from the familiar makers.

But, let's go beyond that. Let's find whole communities that already relate and could relate much better with cell phones equipped with community- and commerce-supporting applications. These could be localities (towns, for example), professions (engineers, educators, health-care or service workers) or organizations (professional or lifestyle associations, unions, political parties). Or, hey, how about Free Software and Open Source Development communities? Why not?

We not only have strength in numbers, we have the power to produce a plethora of useful applications. (Try saying that fast.)

Again, it's going to happen anyway. Won't it be a lot more fun to make it happen? And, isn't that what we're about?

Doc Searls is Senior Editor of Linux Journal. He is also a Visiting Scholar at the University of California at Santa Barbara and a Fellow with the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University.

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