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Can open source save the mobile market?

The mobile market has a big problem.Despite endless hype, the iPhone, Android, Blackberry e-mail and all the rest, data still represents less than 5% of the market.
Written by Dana Blankenhorn, Inactive

The mobile market has a big problem.

Despite endless hype, the iPhone, Android, Blackberry e-mail and all the rest, data still represents less than 5% of the market.

Today's question is whether open source can change that. My inbox is filled with notes from vendors and others claiming yes we can:

  • Microsoft is now widely expected to be running NetBSD on the next version of its Sidekick mobile device.
  • Volantis says its GPL'ed Mobility Server supports 5,700 devices and can link them to Web 2.0 services like Picasa, Flickr and Google Docs.
  • Students at RPI have an open source iPhone application that lets you track your personal finance.

I am assuming this is just the tip of a large iceberg. Open source developers are doing all they can to open up cellular phones to the world of data.

The problems remain the phones and the data plans. Can you imagine running Volantis services on a Razr? And how many consumers can afford to add true Internet data to their mobile subscriptions -- broadband plans cost $70-90/month and are not all-in or even all-accessible.

The best thing open source brings to mobility is a dose of competition. Contrary to those who think open source is socialism, open source application vendors compete fiercely, and with high levels of imagination, to bring new capabilities to market and spin some money from them.

It's all about carrier lock-in. So long as phones and services are tied to specific carriers there is an enormous consumer risk in trying anything. And in the present economic environment it doesn't take much risk to turn maybe into a negative shake of the head.

What unlicensed systems like WiFi really have going for them is they deliver real Internet service -- no gatekeepers, no special requirements. If the Obama stimulus program is to do anything for the mobile Internet it needs to tear down those walls.

The President should ask why that device in his pocket can't do anything but e-mail.

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