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Standards too much of a good thing?

15/3/09

One thread at Mobile World congress was open standards and co-operation. Ralph de la Vega, the boss of AT&T Mobility cited the iPhone for all the extra traffic it had produced.
If ever there was an advert for doing things without standards it’s the iPhone. No support for MMS, or Java, no expectation that it’ll use BONDI or OneAPI, nor the new micro USB standard.

And it doesn’t matter.

The iPhone is great, and part of the reason it’s great is that developers write for the device, not a compromise specification. You need to temper what he says with his US perspective too. As audience member John Strand, one of the said in the truncated questions session, it’s a bit rich for the US to lecture Europe on mobile phones using the iPhone as an example when it’s installed base doesn’t even show on any charts. A Nokia executive said that what Apple sells in a year, Nokia sells in a week.

 It could be worse, he could have been in the room when Dick Lynch, Executive Vice President and Chief Technology Officer of  Verizon Communications said how pleased he was to be in Barcelona, as it was his first time at the show. The First Time? This is the major trade show in the industry, and alright it’s a GSM show and he has a CDMA network, but how fortress mentality is that? As CTO he’s never been to the place where all the cool technology is launched. I’ll bet the CTOs from the smallest networks have been to the show every year for the last decade.  I’ve been to some CTIAs and it’s a village fete compared with MWC/3GSM. He then went on to talk about a 3G future and show charts of what people might use it for: things like video calling. Hello? 2002 just called, they want their PowerPoint slide back.

So it’s against this background of ignorance that the heads of AT&T and Verizon talked about the future, open standards and cooperation. 

The mobile phone industry is constantly striving for new standards. We’ve been very successful. GSM and now WCDMA mean with interconnect mean that your phone will work pretty much anywhere. This of course is great, but you can have too much of a good thing.

One of the major moves is to make applications easy to roll out across a wide number of platforms. This is such a good idea that we’ve two overlapping (not competing, oh no, not at all) standards. OneAPI and BONDI.

The idea is that software developers have a uniform way to develop for a number of different handsets. It’s not a bad idea. It’s quite a good one. Unfortunately it breeds idleness. Programs, and I’m thinking particularly of games, are not optimised for a particular handset. Some handsets have graphics accelerators. Does anyone ever write specific code for the difference accelerators in different handsets? Of course not – you can’t that kind of thing is all hidden away so far from developers they can’t touch.

This bubblewrap attitude to code is a java way of thinking. Write once, run anywhere means run badly everywhere. Lots of phones have specific games keys above the screen. It’s incredibly rare to find any application that uses them. Even the applications that come bundled on the phone.

Any yet iPhone applications are great, not because it’s open ; you can’t even control the camera from within an application or run an application in background, nor because it’s a free market; Apple is quite draconian about what it allows on the apps store, but because it’s a great device, with a great SDK and people write to the device.

What’s needed is what we had with computers of the 1980s. Yes, you had APIs but you also had access to the metal. Programmers could find every speed wrinkle and do clever things. An API for GPS will give a position, but it’s unlikely to allow access to the polling rate. If you are using it for navigation the 1Hz rate is fine, but if you want to do car performance testing you need 5hz or 10Hz. APIs don’t let you change that. If you want real performance from an application you need full access. Standards hold you back from that.

Cat Keynes publishes her thoughts on the mobile phone industry every Sunday at www.catkeynes.com you can read the column  the previous Friday by subscribing here.
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