If you don’t like the way the e-mail program on your PC works, you can replace it with one you like better. And when you need to add a new capability to Firefox, you can simply install an extension. But such flexibility doesn’t apply to most cell phones, since cellular providers restrict how you use a device that’s in your face–or pressed to your face–for sometimes hours a day.

That’s about to change. In the coming year cell phones will start opening up, allowing users to customize their handsets’ interfaces, run any program, and, most important, gain access to underlying hardware for finding directions, making calls over Wi-Fi, and taking pictures.

Eventually, experts say, you’ll also see devices such as cameras, camcorders, and other gadgets gain access to cellular data networks, even though they’ll never be used to make a phone call.

Google Leads the Way

Sparking the move toward cell phone openness is Google, flexing its billion-dollar muscles. Google’s primary motivation, not surprisingly, appears to be putting more advertisements in front of more eyeballs. In a closed cellular world, wireless carriers can control what their subscribers see. Open up the system, and Google and other parties can dive in and begin to compete for your attention.

By mid-2007 Google and other Internet giants had convinced the Federal Communications Commission to require that any company that won a January auction for a set of national cellular wireless licenses must allow consumers to use any device and any legal application on that company’s network. Furthermore, late in the year Google, along with three dozen partners, unveiled plans to construct an open-source cellular phone platform known as Android.

At least initially, Android is probably what you’ll hear most about when the topic of cell-phone openness arises. Because Android is open source, and because the Open Handset Alliance that is behind the platform has agreed to permit remarkably deep access to the OS, any two Android-based devices could be quite dissimilar.

Simple Android applications and the standard interface will be common among such devices. But Android developers can produce unique approaches to navigating through menus and options, or they can allow you to choose from, or later install, dramatically different graphical user interfaces.

The approach is deeper than the “skins” often used to put a thin interface overlay over a piece of software. Instead, the experience will be as if you could boot up Windows Vista and replace Aero with an iPhone interface while still accessing the same programs and data.

Android will also allow application developers easy access to all of the hardware that may be installed on a phone, including GPS chips, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and cell radios, cameras, and other less common options.

Open to the Outside World

Another advantage of an open phone platform: It enables easier interaction with remote services that store or provide information. Consider a phone with a GPS chip, a camera, and a persistent cell or Wi-Fi network connection. Flickr, for example, could release a simple program that would stamp your photos with geographic coordinates stored in the picture’s metadata, and automatically upload photos as they’re taken. Certain cameras and hacks have similar functionality today, but no cell phone supports such a mashup out of the box.

But that sort of application won’t come first. The initial wave of new software will likely tie together basic components–features like contacts, calendars, notes, to-do lists, alarms, ring tones, and other media. The Android software development kit (SDK), for instance, includes standard, accessible formats for basic contacts, calendar functions, and media. Contrast that to many current phones, in which the data sits in separate and often incompatible databases or proprietary formats.

Hate the programs that ship with your Android model? You can probably install new ones while making no other data changes.

TheiPhone SDK may allow such access, given that the iPhone runs a version of Apple’s Unix-based OS X operating system that’s much like the desktop release, which lets program developers work with similar types of underlying user information, databases, and file storage.
As Charles Golvin, a wireless analyst with Forrester Research, observes, integrating tasks with today’s phones is practically impossible. “You’re listening to your voice mail, [and] you’d like to use the note-taking application on your phone to write notes to yourself, all in one standard workflow [as] if you were sitting at your desk,” he says. “But nobody, bar none, has done an implementation of that workflow that an average person could figure out and use.”

New Services

The next offerings will be new paid services. In most cases now, only your service provider–or its partners–can offer you paid cell phone services such as directions. An open platform allows any company to do so, which should lead to lower rates.
Location-based services, including navigation help, are controlled almost entirely by cell carriers. All cell phones are required to provide coordinates for E911 operators, but each carrier has chosen a different approach. Verizon built GPS chips into many of its handsets; however, only subscribers to its VZ Navigator service can access that data.

With an Android or other open phone running a GPS chip, cell-tower-based location mapping, or Wi-Fi, you could choose among several services that provide customized information. And Google, Yahoo, and other mapping and search sites will compete for your dollars.

Having decent cameras on cell phones becomes possible, too. Carriers generally include only relatively low-resolution cameras, and then downgrade the quality of images sent over their data networks. To get a full-res image, you must connect the camera via USB to your PC or swap out a memory card.

With an open platform, handset makers will be motivated to include better cameras, and to allow the user to choose the image transfer method. It’s slightly ridiculous that even a phone with Wi-Fi installed must use a USB connection to move a picture to a computer on a local network.

Finally, an open phone platform will give users access to such VoIP applications as Skype or The Gizmo Program operating natively and with few or no restrictions over either the Wi-Fi or cell data connection. Heavy callers could then avoid paying for expensive cell-calling minutes.

Many Wi-Fi-equipped phones, including a large number of Nokia models, can already make VoIP calls over Wi-Fi. Few, though, can yet use the cellular data network to make VoIP calls.

New Hardware Ahead

Such new software options sound great, but what about hardware? The “elevator pitch” on openness promises that any device will be able to access networks. That means you won’t be stuck with your service provider’s phones; if a phone doesn’t harm a network, you can use it.

In the short term, handsets from outside the United States will likely see a growing presence on U.S. airwaves. The Nokia-dominated Symbian smart-phone platform, for example, owns the market worldwide but is installed on just a small percentage of U.S. cell phones.

Handsets won’t be the only beneficiary. We will see gaming consoles, cameras, music players, and other consumer electronics being equipped with cell chips and cell access–even if they never make a phone call.

The Amazon Kindle is the first major example of such a device. The e-book reader includes a cell data modem that works only with Sprint’s network, and its service bundles in the cost of network access as part of each item purchased.

“The folks from the consumer electronics side have been pretty vocal” about the benefits of such connectivity, says Forrester’s Golvin.

Device manufacturers haven’t bothered to integrate cell chips so far because if they did so they would have to work out complicated deals with a service provider and probably have to share their profits. But in an open-access world, Microsoft could build cell data access into a Zune, for instance, and simply prepay a carrier for airtime rather than make the carrier a full partner.

With the higher bandwidths to come from WiMax and the 700-MHz band, the inclusion of a cell radio in a camcorder or digital camera makes perfect sense. Instead of your having to offload pictures or video later, your files would transfer while or after you capture them.

“You’d never have to worry about the storage on your device,” Golvin notes, and you could also become a live broadcaster “any time you felt like it.”

Of course, if you have five or ten devices with cell phone chips, you won’t want to pay $40 to $80 per month in access fees for every one of them. Network providers will have to be more flexible about the way they charge consumers.

The transition to a more open cell phone world will take a while–it’ll be late 2008, even into 2010, before most of the benefits become fully available. Still, the device in your pocket certainly won’t be like the average clamshell phone sold today. And if that phone doesn’t do exactly what you want, you can change it.

The iPhone’s Not-So-Thrilling Jailbreak

Currently the iPhone is the most famously locked cell platform, allowing no third-party programs to be installed. That should change by the time you read this, upon the release of Apple’s iPhone software development kit (SDK).
Intrepid iPhone users are enjoying software released by crackers to “jailbreak” the phone–that is, install non-Apple-approved applications.

Most early jailbreak apps are free or fee-based and easy to install under Windows Mobile or on a BlackBerry. One more-sophisticated offering, the Navizon service, uses Wi-Fi access-point information and cell-tower information uploaded by users who carry GPS units to provide rough triangulation for others. It’s closer to a next-gen, open phone app, since it uses a third-party application with access to location data both on the phone and from the Navizon servers.

What will become of jailbreaks once the SDK appears? Hard to tell. Apple hasn’t detailed how it will allow programs to be installed, or to which features it will permit access.

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