When Open Isn't Open
By Carlo Longino, Wed Jan 19 23:30:00 GMT 2005

The Open Mobile Terminal Platform alliance announced several new members today, reiterating its mission to provide users with a consistent and better experience across different devices and carriers. But while many carriers are talking open, they're remaining as closed as ever.

When it launched, tt was hard not to see OMTP as much more than a big stick for operators to use to force handset manufacturers into line and submit to their demands regarding user-interface customization. The group remains dominated by carriers, though several major manufacturers and software developers have signed up, and were today joined by another raft of companies, including leading OS developers PalmSource and Symbian.

So while it looks like carriers have won the customization battle, the OMTP is emerging as yet another trade body that's promoting open standards, interoperability, common user experiences, cross-carrier cross-device compatibility and the like, while "also enabling individual operators and manufacturers to customize and differentiate their offering," it says. But "open" is still little more than a buzzword in many cases.

You'd be forgiven for thinking that carriers would have figured out that interoperability of new services is crucial for their success, that past history has taught them that opening up their networks to interact with other carriers -- and letting customers communicate with anybody, regardless of their provider -- is the best way forward. But, apparently the lesson hasn't completely stuck: Hong Kong 3G carriers CSL and SmarTone are accusing Hutchison of holding up progress on an interop agreement for 3G video calls. Hutch should have learned from the abject failure of basing its launch on video calling -- due in no small part to low handset penetration -- and open up the service to the maximum number of users to encourage use by its subscribers.

Hutchison is an OMTP member. How exactly does not having video-call interop improve the user experience, or provide for consistency across carriers? It's these types of issues that turn people off from new services. The concept of interoperability isn't something that users should be burdened with. If a user tries to make a video call, it should work. They shouldn't have to remember that calling people on Carrier X is ok, but Carrier Y won't work. How popular would mobile be if voice calls or SMS worked like this? If something isn't easy, and doesn't just work, people won't use it. Full stop.

Interoperability isn't the only issue, a deep-seated need for control over everything on the network also remains a stumbling point for many operators. BusinessWeek takes US carriers to task over their hesitance to launch mobile music services for fear of letting their brands be overshadowed by content providers. The article correctly asserts that mobile music is going to be big business, and unless carriers are willing to cede some control to experts that know how to run a music business, they're going to miss out completely. But when some carriers are still crippling Bluetooth in an effort to make sure data of all kinds has to be sent over their network, things don't look good.

Sure, saying you're part of a group working on "open platforms" and "open standards" sounds really great and progressive -- but there's a real fundamental difference between acting open and being open.