At the beginning of the year, when the iPhone was announced, pundits and fanboys alike proclaimed that Apple would remake the world of mobile communications. The rumors flew: that iPhone would be sold as an unrestricted device, that it would be unsubsidized by AT&T and therefore open and not locked into a specific network.
What’s more, how shocked are we to discover that this tight integration of device to network is now unravelling thanks to Google? First it was Verizon, announcing that they will allow any compatible device onto their network, now AT&T has followed suit “immediately,” not even requiring a contract for service using bring-your-own devices.
“You can use any handset on our network you want,” says Ralph de la Vega, CEO of AT&T’s wireless business. “We don’t prohibit it, or even police it.”
You kids don’t remember, but when I was a whipper-snapper telephones were leased to customers by the phone company. It wasn’t until the AT&T breakup that we were actually allowed to purchase telephones and even then, one had to purchase them from a Bell Telephone Store, which featured such devices as a Mickey Mouse phone or a wall telephone with a built-in chalkboard. The real significance of this was not the phones, but the idea that one could connect any compatible device to the network rather than only what was “approved” by the company. Today — for those of us who have landlines — telephones are wildly varied and have many more features than they ever did when the phone company supplied them. The initial opening of the network was uninteresting, but over time it had great results. I expect the same thing with mobile phones.
This all seems to have been instigated by Google’s mobile phone software development, which may result in a wide variety of phones not tied to specific software/carrier platforms. But I also wonder if it has something to do with Apple. Why? Because we can easily assume that one day, iPhones will not be locked or exclusive to AT&T. If AT&T wishes to continue reaping the benefits of iPhone subscribers, they’ll have to have an open network on that day so that customers can buy an iPhone somewhere and then activate it on AT&T’s network without SIM locks, subsidies, or the like. This is obviously not going to happen tomorrow, and I’m not clear on the length of Apple’s exclusive contract with AT&T; but Steve Jobs tends to prefer going it alone rather than partnering with a company that doesn’t share his vision. AT&T certainly doesn’t mesh well with Apple and I believe that the majority of complaints related to the iPhone are actually about AT&T service.
Opening the network — even if it has little real impact at this point — is a good self-preservation move. I mean, would you lease a telephone from the phone company these days?