When Is Your Phone No Longer Yours?
By Carlo Longino, Thu Feb 03 00:30:00 GMT 2005

Carriers have soundly won the battle with manufacturers over handset customization. Now, OS providers are getting in to line. But at what point does customization become control?


Symbian announced version 9.0 of its OS today, with few, if any, real eye-catching new features. But Symbian 9.0 does offer a number of features to allow operators greater OTA access to users' handsets, ostensibly to let them better manage the devices out in the field. One understandable reaction wonders, though, if it's more about giving operators control of devices, rather than supporting them.

Clearly, end-user support is an area where operators are looking for help, and they're already implementing third-party solutions to help them diagnose and repair user problems over the network, configure devices and even hijack the user interface to install a custom UI for their own content portals. Carrier customization is nothing new, with handset vendors backing down and giving in to operator demands for more visibility on devices and more consistency across handsets, but indeed, the trend of operating systems falling in line is taking hold, too.

User-interface developer UIQ announced the "Operator Customization Package" a while back as a part of the new version 3.0 of its software, which lets carriers easily add themes, settings and content to devices running the UIQ interface. And one of the key early selling points of Microsoft's smartphone software was the degree to which operators could customize users' home screen (as well as the devices) -- a point boosted by the likes of Orange bragging that subscribers on customized devices delivered double the ARPU of users on standard handsets.

But where things get troublesome for many users is when the threshold separating customization and control is crossed. It smacks of walled gardens, and it's the same type of thinking that leads carriers to lock down their devices, either by disabling features or preventing users from installing their own software.

So what happens when users, many of whom may have bought their smartphone for the ability to install software of their choosing, feel sold out? And furthermore, will any vendor or operator care? It remains to be seen exactly what these new features of the Symbian OS entail, and how they can be implemented. But the line in the press release don't inspire a lot of hope: "network operators and enterprise IS managers will be able to access a user's phone over the air to deploy new network services, capabilities or applications, or to diagnose a problem, as well as to audit applications installed on a phone." Nobody would argue with carriers being able to better support end-user devices. But if that support comes along with the ability to vet users' handsets and excise unapproved apps, users may take exception -- and flock to companies that keep things open.