Long Live The Walled Garden!
By Carlo Longino, Thu Aug 26 15:15:00 GMT 2004

You must be "nuts" if you want open Internet access on a mobile phone, says 3 UK's chief operating officer.

Gareth Jones, 3's COO, told New Media Age in no uncertain terms that the carrier doesn't plan to take down its walled garden, evidently buoyed by the relatively good numbers it announced last week.

"People don't want open access, that's not what our customers tell us they want," Jones told NMA. "Anyone in their right mind who tries to do anything on the Internet with a screen that size has to be nuts."

Wow. It's hard to tell if Jones just doesn't understand what he's talking about or if he just isn't very diplomatic, but the former is probably the safer bet.

"My customers tell me they have two to three minutes to access mobile content; you would not even get WAP to fire up in that time let alone download anything of any significance," he adds. If it takes one of 3's handsets two to three minutes to "fire up WAP," that says more about the quality of its handets and services than the sanity of its customers. Never mind that 3's handsets support WAP 2.0, and it appears to be what the operator uses for its walled content.

The walled-garden approach has been widely discarded, simply because users don't like being told what content they can and cannot access -- hence the popularity of HTML browsers in handsets. Even the biggest and most rigid content system in the world -- i-mode -- allows access to outside, unofficial sites (given they're written in cHTML). Allowing unfettered access makes a mobile Internet device much more valuable and compelling than one that can just fetch content pre-determined by the carrier.

3's obviously put a lot of effort into its mobile content, and it's a smart move to get videos and other content that takes advantage of the 3G network and its speeds. But having an open system encourages use not only by consumers, but by content producers. Keep in mind that on i-mode, there are around 4,000 "official" sites that are approved by NTT DoCoMo and appear on its navigation menus and use its billing system, coming from 3000 content providers and companies. But there are 80,000 unofficial sites -- 20 times more. A DoCoMo exec also said a few years back that just 23% of its data traffic comes from official sites, with the balance from e-mail and unofficial sites. Closing off the system to outside sites would undoubtedly hit their overall usage.

There are still some of those crazy people, though, that want data-only access. With 3's slow uptake, it's surprising the company won't come out with a data card (which is where the other UK carriers have started their 3G efforts), which would seem to be an easy way to grab some low-hanging fruit. But given Jones' comments, it looks like 3 doesn't understand the idea of mobile data, or the attraction of having a connection with 3G speeds to a device other than a mobile phone. And what company can ultimately succeed by denying customers the right to purchase what they want, when there are plenty of competitors?

While 3 might have some interesting content, a walled garden is not a smart move. Though the carrier may think it's protecting content revenues, in the long run, all it's going to do is increase churn. It's like 3's video calling feature that it's made the cornerstone of its service -- how much value is there in a closed-off network? These days, not much.