Radioactive: Set our mobile content free

Haven't we learned that walled gardens don't work?

Haven't we learned that walled gardens don't work?

Mobile operators are for the most part giving up on their proprietary portals and opening up access to the internet. This approach, says Futurity Media's Anthony Plewes, will make users happier - and make the mobile companies more money.

T-Mobile recently announced a new approach to the mobile internet which intends to tear down its walled garden, allowing users unfettered access to the open internet. This can only be good news for its 3G customers and the industry as a whole.

Instead of herding its 3G subscribers into its own propriety 'T-Zones' portal where T-Mobile produces or controls all of the content, T-Mobile's new Web'n'Walk service (terrible, terrible name) will present Google's search page as the new default home. T-Mobile claims it is the first operator in Europe to allow users to access the internet freely from their mobile devices.

This strategy, trialled at CeBIT earlier this year, brings mobile content more in line with users' fixed internet experience. The Google mobile search function will allow users to search eight billion web pages and 1.1 billion images. Google is currently refining its mobile search pages to specifically locate mobile-optimised web pages programmed using XHTML, i-mode, as well as translating normal web pages into WML.

Web'n'Walk was launched in Germany in June and will be available in the Czech Republic, Netherlands and UK by the end of 2005. Only those with a Sidekick II, MDA Compact, Nokia 6680 and - from September - the SDA smartphone will have access to the service. T-Mobile has high hopes for Web'n'Walk, with T-Mobile's International CEO targeting up to a million new customers in Europe by the end of 2006 as well as a substantial increase in ARPU.

Up to now, mobile content has been dominated by content sourced by the operators in a branded portal environment. These portals act as 'walled gardens' because the operators control what content subscribers can access. Vodafone, for example, spends a fortune developing and marketing its Live! portal which encompasses major brand names and content types. Vodafone recently launched a half-a-million track music download service which will be the only one available in Live!

Media owners have long been concerned about the hold that the mobile operators exercise over mobile content. In June, giants Disney, News Corp, Universal and Warner Bros formed an advisory body to the GSM Association to ensure their position is represented. They are particularly keen to have their views heard on the issues of reformatting content for mobile, digital rights management (DRM), revenue share, billing and mobile advertising.

Although Vodafone's 3G Live! portal may be a walled garden, its customers are able to access non-Vodafone sites. Orange and O2 have adopted the same strategy with their 3G launches, and all three operators seem confident that subscribers will be kept entertained by the range of content available on their portals.

While T-Mobile's decision to move its focus away from T-Zones seems to concede defeat in the portal wars, the move will encourage more users onto mobile data. The internet is popular because it is an open environment. Leaving users free to access the content they want will only encourage more users to use more data services.

However, open access will only goes so far; one website Web'n'Walk subscribers will not be able to access is Skype.com. Although using the VoIP application on a mobile phone wouldn't actually be free, as users would need to pay the data transfer charge and local termination fees, subscribers would still benefit from cheaper international calls and would be able to bypass the artificially high roaming charges that mobile operators pocket.

Access to Skype would be doubly damaging for T-Mobile, as the Web'n'Walk launch offer includes unlimited downloads until the end of the year.

Walled gardens are not just a scourge of the mobile internet; there was a real fear that the same could happen to the whole internet, turning it into islands of paid-for content. However all parties are starting to slowly realise that walled gardens are not good for users, not good for content providers and not good for the operators or internet service providers.

Witness the slowly changing mindset of AOL, one of the internet's most enthusiastic walled gardeners. Back in 2002 after the Time Warner merger, there was a fear that the new company would put its premium content such as Time magazine exclusively within the AOL portal, accessible only to AOL customers.

But fast forward to 2005, and AOL has launched its own free web-based email service and expanded the content on its non-subscriber portal. No doubt the success of its freely available instant-messaging application AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) helped to change its mind and the new email service is being marketed as an extension to AIM.

Despite overwhelming evidence that breaking open walled gardens will actually benefit operators, some of them are still unwilling to take that step. Operators are far more likely to make additional revenue by charging for data transfer than keeping users locked in a proprietary arena and attempting to sell them their own premium content services.

The most notable naysayer in the mobile market is 3. Its garden is still steadfastly bricked in and subscribers can't access sites outside of the 3-sanctioned content. The operator made this decision at launch and built its portal with exclusive content deals, such as one with the Premier League.

However, 3 is looking increasingly out of step. Most majors operators now allow their 3G subscribers to access outside content and T-Mobile's move will test 3's resolve. 3's users are getting increasing disgruntled about their lack of free access and rumours are already starting to fly that it is starting to reconsider its strategy.

Anthony Plewes is a freelance journalist and director at Futurity Media.