Trolltech programmable phone likely to have uphill battle

Summary:Norway-based Trolltech is demonstrating what it calls the first fully reprogrammable handset in hopes of luring phone designers looking to stay with the pace of innovation.  But is staying with the pace of innovation the problem?

Norway-based Trolltech is demonstrating what it calls the first fully reprogrammable handset in hopes of luring phone designers looking to stay with the pace of innovation.  But is staying with the pace of innovation the problem? Or is it the carriers?  According to Reuters:

A major divide that separates PCs from mobile telephones is that while designers can freely reprogram a computer's software, most of a phone's functions are fixed at the factory...."(Independent) developers are having a hard time figuring out how to participate in the mobile phone market," Benoit Schillings, Trolltech's chief technology officer, said in an interview after a news conference to unveil the phone on Monday....Trolltech, the world's top supplier of Linux software for mobile phones, said it will offer a mobile camera phone running on the international GSM/GPRS standard it calls Greenphone....Trolltech's phone is priced at around $690 and comes with all the software and source code necessary to develop a complete mobile phone model, including core Linux operating system controls, a phone dialler, address book and camera application.

The idea sounds all well and good. But going back to that one statement about how most of a phone's functions are fixed at the factory, there's one issue. What's being fixed and who is doing the fixing? Most smartphones are capable of way more than they actually do.  The problem is that the phone manufacturers end up having to disable some of the cooler features at the requests of the carriers who want to control what subscribers do and don't do with their phones. 

Recently, I wrote about how Verizon Wireless and Sprint-Nextel are doing this very thing by forcing Motorola to disable the ability to transfer ringtones, images, and video back and forth between its phones and a computer.  This stuff works on Cingular and T-Mobile's networks.  Before buying the file transfer software needed to move files back and forth between a phone and a computer, Motorola warns:

IMPORTANT NOTE: This downloadable software is fully supported for Cingular and T-Mobile customers. However, portions of this software's functionality have been disabled for Verizon or Nextel customers, so Motorola Phone Tools will not work fully with phones using those carriers. If you are a Verizon customer, all multimedia and internet connection features in this software will be disabled due to carrier request. Please contact your service provider for further information. 

In other words, the same phone that does one thing on T-Mobile or Cingular's networks may very well do something entirely different on Verizon's and Sprextel's. 

Then, once a phone has been customized to the carrier's specification, the phone has to go through some heavy duty testing to make sure that it doesn't foul up the carrier's network.  That "qualification" process, according to some of the phone manufacturers I've spoken with is what can really delay a handset's time to market (going back to the so-called difficulty in keeping up with the pace of innovation).

So, it seems to me that the last thing the network operators want is a fully reprogrammable phone on their networks.

Topics: Mobility

About

David Berlind was fomerly the executive editor of ZDNet. David holds a BBA in Computer Information Systems. Prior to becoming a tech journalist in 1991, David was an IT manager.

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