Mobile Freedom

In addition to the two articles that GigaOm published last week, I also provided a third article for GigaOm’s consideration as lead up to last week’s Mobilize event.  Here it is for your reading pleasure!

Openness is an active topic in the mobile industry. But what does “open” really mean? In a discussion with leading mobile developers, we asked what “open” meant to each of them. As you can guess, each answer was different. But my favorite was “Open means not having to ask permission.”

I’m not sure that definition fits very well with the word “open,” but it does well capture what is desired from openness. I believe the phrase “freedom” better reflects what we are all seeking as we transform the mobile industry.

Mobile customers desire the freedom to access any legal network-based content or application, anywhere and anytime. They want the freedom to make their mobile devices their own – personalized with their style, their content, and their applications. They want the freedom to install new software and new content, without restrictions, on their mobile devices. Mobile customers want the freedom to choose from a wide variety of devices and change from one device to another as the situation warrants.

But mobile freedom is not just the freedom “to” it is also the freedom “from.” Customers desire freedom from surprise bills, freedom from hard to use devices and services, freedom from the challenges of finding interesting content and applications, freedom from being bombarded with irrelevant ads, freedom from their personal information being shared with people they don’t trust, freedom from never-ending lock-in to one network.

Mobile developers also want freedom. Developers desire the freedom to innovate – leveraging the power of mobility to create new value for customers. They want freedom from having to develop for an infinite variety of devices and platforms. They want the freedom to implement the business model that fits their product and market. Mobile developers want the freedom to succeed.

If this is the freedom that is desired, is it the freedom that is being delivered by the mobile industry? If you care enough about this topic to have read this far, I doubt I need to answer that question.

So, why isn’t the industry hopping right to it and delivering mobile freedom? I believe there are two answers, one somewhat philosophical and the other quite practical.

I believe all industries suffer from a similar problem. Since I’ve “grown up” in telecom, I call it “ Big Bell Dogma.” In short, Big Bell Dogma is resistance to change. In large part it is driven by the market power held by incumbents and their fear that change will reduce that power. Each of us, individually, suffers from Big Bell Dogma. We resist change because it brings uncertainty over whether we can continue to be successful. But the greater the power held, the greater the resistance to change. A monopoly mindset is what gives Big Bell Dogma its name.

On a more practical level, the reality is that the mobile industry has an existing, profitable business model that generally delivers the kind of financial results Wall Street expects.

I believe that mobile freedom will drive significant market growth – just as freedom drove tremendous growth in the PC market (with the IBM/Microsoft/Intel standard platform) and in the Internet market (when the web delivered new freedom to end users and developers). I believe that mobile operators who embrace freedom can participate in that market growth and can actually deliver better financial performance (faster growth, better margins) than the current model.

The challenge is in the transition. In a freedom-enabled mobile market, the revenues change. The sources of revenue change and the nature of revenues change. In a freedom-driven business model, the costs change as well. Unfortunately, synchronizing the revenue and cost changes is challenging.

To successfully manage through this transition takes a long series of small steps, each with manageable risk. Sprint’s introduction of the Simply Everything price plan to deliver freedom from surprise bills was a manageable risk. Our introduction of the Titan platform to deliver freedom for developers from fragmented device development was a manageable risk. The list goes on.

Over time, a series of steps can get us to mobile freedom. But wouldn’t it be nice to not have to worry about a transition?

Sprint was blessed with that opportunity in the launch of our WiMax business – Xohm, soon to be part of the new Clearwire. The Xohm business model was built from the ground up to deliver mobile freedom to customers and to third party developers.

It has been very exciting to watch the birthing of a new industry model, and it will be fascinating to watch as mobile freedom grows and matures!

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