A mobile conference broke out (punchline). OK, seriously, I participated in a wrap-up panel (after my panel) that included folks from across the social networking spectrum. The agenda was to simply follow the conversation where the audience took it, and after one mobile social networking question served as the bridge, the conversation moved squarely to mobile and stayed there for the next hour, only peripherally touching on social networks.

Granted, last Friday coincided with the launch of the 3G iPhone and the debut of the iPhone app store, and the technology cycles in the audience’s mind was fully utilized by Apple, but there was a broader trend. Location, open networks, 3G bandwidth, mobile devices were the things people wanted to talk about, the topics that captured the imagination. Two things hit home for me:

  • Investors like Vinod Khosla and Roger McNamee are spot on when they bet that “the mobile phone will be the mainstream personal computer” and “the mobile migration to smart phones will produce even greater disruption than PC industry moving to
    graphical interface.” 
    When I present at the same conference five years from now, I’m predicting there will be no laptops, a sharp contrast to the array of laptops that sat in from of 75% of the listening audience.
  • Mobile computing is going to change our lives as dramatically than social networking (and the intersection – social networks on mobile phones – will be a significant part of why

I’ve got an interest in the topic, and one of the key questions I think about when I consider investing (time or money) in the space is how open an environment mobile will be for innovation, and when moderator and host Mark Lesnick asked me what I want from the cellular carriers, I took the opportunity to put Jorg Heuer of T-Mobile on the spot:

“Will you open the network and be agnostic to the bits flowing across it? Will you allow application providers to freely build on your networks and deliver services to your subscribers, and create the same type of open environment that allowed unparalleled innovation to flourish on the internet? Will you explore ways to participate in a rising tide instead of controlling the bits that flow through the pipe and choking the flow of innovation?” (Note: Jason Devitt of Vindigo and S)

Jorg’s was refreshingly candid, I’m paraphrasing his response:

“Look, we spent billions to build out our network. We’re committed to driving innovation (that’s my job!), and working with partners to help deliver new services, but it is our network, and we have the right to control what goes on it and share in the value that other companies create.”

I appreciated his answer because he didn’t hide in disingenuous arguments about security, privacy, network efficiency, etc (see Comcast, and Verizon’s response to why they blocked GPS access). Instead, he offered a straight business answer – we bought the spectrum, we built the network, we have the right to control it.

I don’t agree with it, for a couple of reasons.

  • First, because the spectrum is a public resource licensed to private companies, carries an obligation to serve the public, and the innovation we will see from an open network will dwarf the innovation on closed networks, something squarely in the public interest.
  • Second, because the FCC has already demonstrated a willingness to build new rules for old spectrum (see wireless 911 mandate) when it’s in the public interest and in an area we didn’t foresee as important

And I’m a big fan of the recent 700MHz spectrum auction, where the FCC tethered open access requirements to the spectrum at the request of Google, and after Google committed to a minimum $4.6B bid.

Now Google’s bid was clearly self-interested, they benefit tremendously from open networks, are threatened by closed networks, and seek to open them or guarantee their position in them wherever possible (see their AOL investment, Facebook bid, OpenSocial initiative, Clearwire investment, etc). But while self-interested, it also happens to be good and clearly in the interests of the consumer.

Perhaps something like patent protection, where protection lapses after a period (and presumably a return on investment), would work – although I’d want far less than twenty years of protection before the networks go open.

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