Operators return to Barcelona, (this time) armed with Open Source

By Jason Whitmire

Scene Setter
26 years after GSM was created to design a pan-European mobile technology, Mobile World Congress number 13 is set to take place in Barcelona in February. This time around, as they did when GSM World Congress was first held in Madrid in 1995, mobile network operators will dominate the scene. 

Next month, however, the topic of discussion will not be new network deployments, or the latest traunch of jazzy new devices, or the next best application. Rather, Open Source will be topic Number 1 on the operator agenda in 2009. As changing operator strategies include the need for a strategic terminal platform that they can influence, the tectonic plates that once defined how a device was created and deployed are shifting and fueling significant change in the value chain.

A Brave, New Ecosystem
Whether it be the proliferation of phone development activity around Google’s Android stack, the phenomenal operator gravitation toward the LiMo Foundation, or Symbian’s intriguing announcement to open source its end-of-life cycle stack, the mobile industry is breaking out of the traditional controlled development environment to favor collaboration that accelerates innovation. The use of open source software in mobile is exploding from the operating system all the way up to the user experience, and Linux-based open source stacks are moving well beyond alpha stage with backing by industry heavy weights.

Indeed, the ubiquity of open source is causing not only a fundamental shift in proprietary OEM software deployment, but also accelerating the opening of the operator walled garden. As VisionMobile’s Andreas Constantinou – arguably the industry’s most astute pundit of open source in mobile – has pointed out, strategic “shared” core software platforms are “in” (versus supporting and maintaining up to ten proprietary stacks in an operator portfolio).

Innovating on a Perceived Commodity
Given that almost every major operator has now launched some sort of Linux device, operator versions of open source stacks are entering the optimization phase, aiming to reduce costs of bringing new Linux devices to market, more rapidly evolve on-device and network-based services, and speed application testing and certification. These highly optimized stacks will allow the operators and their OEM and ISV partners to shift the focus of innovation from the baseline software to the applications, services, and user experiences that will ultimately provide the basis for differentiation and subscriber and revenue growth.

At the same time, the complexity of open source coupled with proprietary software assets has forced operators to quickly get smart – few companies in mobile offer the indemnification, quality metrics, warranties, and SLAs that were intrinsic to the fully proprietary software paradigm. Yet this is exactly what the operators and their partners seek to allow them to overcome the last business hurdle to open source adoption.

Take-aways, Before You Reach Costa Brava

  • A number of trends (community content, me-portals, WiFi, etc.) will accelerate the crumbling of once venerable operator walled garden.
  • Operators recognize that the mobile device software experience must improve across devices, with a critical need to bring all-internet experience to mobile devices.
  • Chipset manufacturers will continue to rapidly embrace open source stacks (Android, Limo, Moblin) as service providers send downstream requirements that reward pre-optimized hardware-software combinations. Expect multiple commercial devices and demos on all three software platforms in Barcelona.?
  • As memory and CPU constraints disappear, open source will allow mobile device to become true application servers, not just smart mobile phones.?
  • Fragmentation in mobile device software is out, shared core software platforms are in.
  • Nevertheless, fragmentation of developer ecosystems (LiMo, Android, Moblin, Symbian, Blackberry, iPhone, Palm…) will constrain the pace of innovation in the mobile market.?
  • Operators will be making fundamental decisions about which stacks to deploy (Android, LiMo, Moblin, Symbian, etc.) while larger ODMs shift their attention to learn open source.
  • Operators will increasingly require commercial solutions that protect signature applications while leveraging open source’s innovation rate

Have fun !

Jason Whitmire has more than 15 years of executive marketing and
management experience in semiconductor and system software. He
currently serves as General Manager of Wind River’s Mobile Solutions
business. Previously he was a managing director of FSMLabs, where he
headed the worldwide wireless and EMEA businesses, and he was head of
business development for wireless software at Infineon Technologies for
four years. Additionally, Jason has held senior product management,
marketing and business development positions at two European mobile
network operators. Jason got his start in the wireless arena in 1993
while representing the US government in international spectrum and
privatization negotiations.

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