Open. Closed. Do consumers really care and can manufacturers tell the difference?

I’m sitting at SFO killing time before my flight… a perfect chance to catch up on some blogging.

I’ve spent the past couple of days at the “Open Mobile” conference in San Francisco.  It was my first real brush with the traditional mobile industry since I added Sony Ericsson to my client list.

Mostly the conference did a great job of highlighting how utterly screwed up the mobile industry really is.

Openness was definitely a hot topic, with a borderline verbal brawl breaking out between Android and Symbian at one point (my favorite part of the whole conference.  But I spent a good chunk of the time having flashbacks to Enterprise software circa ’96 – ’99.  Everyone was desperate to explain how incredibly open they were, while making it very clear that they were anything but.

In mobile right now, the height of rebellious openness seems to be “off deck” distribution i.e. distributing software and/or content outside of the carriers.  And the poster-child for this radical notion was Apple.

Now in the circles I usually move in, Apple and openness aren’t words that spend much time together.  I don’t believe anyone from Apple was in attendance, but I think even they would have been embarrassed by the label.

Many reasons were cited for Apple’s success, ranging from “the number of applications” to “it’s a very attractive phone”.  And there were the usual collection of nay-sayers – “won’t last”, “no-one is making money from the App Store” etc.

But all of these opinions rather miss the point.

Over lunch I had a very enjoyable chat with a gentleman from Intel and we chewed on the subject of Apple at some length (almost as long as the bad beef we were served).

The iPhone works as well as it does because it offers a compelling and complete end-to-end experience.  The device is sexy, with a slick UI, a largely great user experience and some novel uses of technology.  Once you’re registered, it is very easy to find an application and install it on your phone without a desktop machine anywhere in the process.  I’m personally not a fan of the device as a phone, but as a complete mobile eco-system, you have to respect what Apple have built.

But open?  It’s not an open system at all.  It’s firmly, squarely closed.  It’s not so much “off-deck” as it simply changing the definition of “on-deck”.  AT&T doesn’t control the App Store (although they clearly have influence) but you can only use your Apple device to download Apple approved content from an Apple approved supplier.

Can you choose your carrier? No.  Can you download applications outside Apple’s carefully controlled App Store?  No (okay, you can jailbreak your iPhone, but then you face a whole host of other potential issues).  Can you release an app that improves on Apple’s contact app?  No.  Do you need more direct access to the underlying hardware, or flash support?  Good luck.

Need to do anything that the Gods of Apple (or their friends) might in any way take offense to?  Fat chance.

But 6M+ consumers could care less.

And are you ever going to get the same experience from a Windows Mobile or Android device?  It seems unlikely.  Whether the tradeoffs will be worthwhile remains to be seen.

By mobile phone standards, the entire iPhone customer base is a tiny fraction of the total market.  But to ignore what Apple have done so successfully is as foolish as missing the point of why they’ve had the success they’ve had.

More on the mobile industry in my next post…

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