It’s The Platform, Stupid


I need to learn by doing. It’s an inefficient approach, but information gleaned from news and blogs doesn’t usually penetrate my thick head.

I’m developing a mobile collaboration (or “social networking”) application. Though the piece that actually runs on the “mobile” is by far the simplest component of my system (a small Java/BREW program that took only a few hours to write), it does have to, well, run on the freaking mobile!

I’ve long heard that Verizon requires a partnership for application developers, but the others are easy to work with. To my dismay, I’ve discovered that all of the carriers have restrictions that make it very difficult to develop an application for their handsets, and if the
application has any specific requirements, the subset of applicable handsets
shrinks further.

Certain aspects of my application will work on at best one or two handsets offered any given carrier, no blessing required. For example it works on one of the BlackBerry devices from Sprint. It doesn’t work on any of the
BlackBerry devices offered by Cingular, but it does work on one of their other business level devices. It doesn’t work on anything from Verizon.

Problem – > I don’t want it on a BlackBerry or a brick. My target demographic uses trendy pink flip phones that are free or $40, not pocket-bulging micro-laptops that cost $400.

Now, of course, I could attempt to obtain a partnership with several or all of these carriers, so that my application gets tested on each individual phone, and is eventually approved. YouTube could have also first tried to obtain a
partnership with big movie studios, but the studios would have wanted to partner with only the winning video sites, ones that were the most well funded, etc.

You see, the carriers don’t know which mobile applications have the potential to become blockbusters any more than the VCs or “Google”s or studios knew which video sharing site would take off.

Hey, why the restrictions, you control freaks? Are you trying to get back at the World because your mom didn’t let you eat candy? Seriously, the carriers figure if there’s a buck to be made on their network, that’s their buck. I
can’t say I would feel differently if I thought I could get away with it, but I don’t think they can. At least not for long. Here’s why:

1) Margins are in the drink on basic voice services. Advanced features such as multimedia, social networking, and location based advertising are the very things that the carriers are banking their futures on. Ecommerce is trumped by e-socialite commerce. With mobile you know who they are, where they are, and now with social networking, what they want. Cha-ching.

2) Sure the carriers have smart employees and smart partners, but for every smart person who is an employee of a carrier or partner, there are hundreds or thousands who are not. We are in a period of mobile development
frenzy. That makes it really, really, likely that someone who is not an employee or partner will come up with a better idea, sooner.

3) So with 1 and 2 together, we might jump to the conclusion that smart people who come up with a better idea or product will be forced to become a carrier employee or partner. Ingredients in democratization of mobile:
WiFi, WiMax, and Skype. Sure, carriers are coming out with dual mode (and maybe soon three mode) handsets, but with WiFi and WiMax a device doesn’t need a carrier, period. The profit is in the fancy stuff, but consumers
still need voice. Skype has voice. In case you are in the dark ages, Skype is a program that turns your computer into an Internet phone, and a damn good one. Skype already runs on all sorts of mobile gadgets (the glut of
these has not even yet hit), works just as well if not better than cell service, and Skype-to-Skype calling is free to anywhere on earth (with coverage to other solar systems coming soon).

Entire cities are already blanketed with WiFi. WiMax networks will blanket entire states and maybe countries. If better applications are fostered and deployed on devices that use those networks, the carriers miss out on the blockbuster applications that sell their handsets and drive traffic on their networks. Right now they have a lead – WiFi and WiMax are not nearly as widely deployed as high speed
mobile, and no one I know owns a mobile Skype-and-everything-else gadget – yet. Let the social networking land grab begin.

Microsoft got it early on – they made it easy for developers to make stuff for their platform. YouTube got it. They made it easy to put videos on their site. (Publish-to-view delay was 2 minutes on YouTube but 2 weeks on Google
Video and even worse on some of the other services – and all that from personal knowledge). Microsoft wasn’t stupid enough to restrict application development on their platform, even though the applications compete with
some of their own products.

YouTube wasn’t stupid enough to try and amass rights to a content library or police every video that was uploaded. They knew they were first and foremost “picks and shovels”, and they are laughing all the way to the bank. As my daughter would point out – “Daddy, you said
‘stupid.'”