Google wriggles in open voice and browser debates

Mountain View pushes open source, but only so far

Kineto offers voice bridge

Some firms want to bridge the gulf between carriers and open web players, rather than encouraging the stand-off. The large wireless vendors are playing 'carrier's friend' with services and platforms to help operators create desirable web-based applications that even open access consumers will choose. These tap into the competitive advantages inherent in their networks, such as their billing capabilities and network-based functions like contact books, presence and location awareness.

Alcatel-Lucent, with its application enablement and Telco 2.0 programs, and Ericsson, with its hosted apps initiative, are at the forefront of this trend.

Smaller companies also want to get on the cellcos' side, one of them being Kineto, best known for its contribution to dual-mode 3G/Wi-Fi platforms, via the Unlicensed Mobile Access technology, and now to VoLGA, one approach to solving the problem of supporting legacy voice on LTE. Now Kineto is looking at voice from another angle, creating a mobile VoIP app specifically designed to be resold by a carrier.

The app runs on the cellco's existing infrastructure and can work with iPhone, Android, Symbian and Windows Mobile devices. Currently in trials with several operators, it can be rebranded by the carrier as a competitor to third party mobile VoIP offerings like Skype, Google Voice and Truphone. In other words, if cellcos can't keep these products off their networks, they can try to offer something even more attractive of their own to keep customers loyal.

Third party VoIP's threat to the cellco model, where voice remains the key competitive edge, is greater than that of net neutrality, says ratings agency Fitch in its latest biannual report on the North American wireless industry. It says web-based voice and text will have "uncertain and wide ranging" implications for operators, eroding ARPU and subscriber loyalty.

As operators try to keep VoIP off their systems for as long as possible, Skype's CEO, Josh Silverman, claims its iPhone app has now been downloaded about four million times. But it can still only use Wi-Fi, as AT&T continues to demur on allowing it to run over 3G. “The usage on iPhone is pretty good, but it is still handcuffed,” Silverman told Gigaom last week, and believes that usage would rise if 3G were enabled. “Most people want to use Skype over the wide area networks,” he went on. “We want the telcos to get out of the way.”

Palm steps up open browser credentials

One of Google's less likely supporters in the browser versus apps war is now Palm, since the launch of the Linux-based webOS. Palm may not have gone as far as to back Android, but its positioning against arch-rival Apple is all about the browser. This was highlighted when two leading web-based programming advocates left open source browser group Mozilla for Palm recently, arguing the phone maker's systems will be a strong platform for their broader ambitions – to weaken closed mobile environments like Apple's and promote the open browser-based model.

The move by Dion Almaer and Ben Galbraith to Palm, where they will be directors of the developer relations team, raises hopes that the open mobile web push is becoming less dependent on Google, which bodes well for continuing innovation and competition. The two friends and developers have gained prominence for their work running the Ajaxian site for complex web inter-faces, and working on Mozilla's web-based Bespin tool for collaborative programming. WebOS is one of the most browser-based of mobile software environments, prefiguring many of the concepts that Google hopes to introduce to the PC and mobile worlds in future, not with Android, but with Chrome OS.

The foundation for Palm Pre Apps is a WebKit-based browser, so its apps are basically web services. Almaer wants to accelerate and highlight this process and wrote on his blog: “We will have the responsibility of the developer experience with Palm. We will be trying to create a rich connective tissue between the company and the web developer community that we love.”

In particular, people like this need to work to make web programs as fast, richly functional and efficient as native programs. So far, they fall down on all three counts, especially on smartphones, but they are making rapid progress, as witnessed by the rise of techniques like Ajax and the opening up of important players like Adobe.

'Downright Orwellian'

Galbraith also sees the work of Palm and others as an antidote to the way that some vendors used the mobile web explosion to seize power and control. “My enthusiasm for this amazing new world is tempered by some unfortunate decisions made by some of the players in this space,” he wrote. “It seems that some view this revolution as a chance to seize power in downright Orwellian ways by constraining what we, as developers, can say, dictating what kinds of apps we can create, controlling how we distribute our apps, and placing all kinds of limits on what we can do to our computing devices." No prizes for guessing which phone/store giant he was referring to.

Also at Palm, webOS 1.2 was released this week, adding new features to the Pre and forthcoming Pixie, but apparently ending the feud with Apple over access to iTunes. This feature has been turned off and on in a cat-and-mouse fight with the iPhone maker, but did not reappear in the new webOS version.

The upgrade does offer integration with LinkedIn contacts and easier links to instant messaging friends, plus cut-and-paste for web pages and emails, in-browser file download, downloads from the Amazon MP3 store, and filtering of emails via search. Perhaps most importantly, webOS adds billing features that will allow premium applications to be supported in the the Palm App Catalog storefront.

Copyright © 2009, Wireless Watch

Wireless Watch is published by Rethink Research, a London-based IT publishing and consulting firm. This weekly newsletter delivers in-depth analysis and market research of mobile and wireless for business. Subscription details are here.

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