Open-network Chief Sees Verizon Following His Lead

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The head of the new open-network initiative at Verizon Wireless sees the idea of allowing any device or application on the network as an unstoppable force.

Anthony Lewis, vice president of open development at the second-largest U.S. cellular company, was bullish on his project during a panel discussion Wednesday at the AlwaysOn Stanford Summit that praised the burgeoning open-network trend.

Verizon Wireless' traditional model, in which it sells Verizon-branded handsets through its own stores and offers a limited "deck" of applications and services on those handsets, is expected to remain the greater part of its business. But Lewis, who joined the company several months ago after running the Verizon Communications wireline business in Washington, D.C., expects openness to spread through that part of the operation.

"I have the future. I've got the growth," he said. "I'm going to carve a path that they will have to follow."

In the U.S., mobile operators today are closely involved in picking both the handsets and the applications and services their customers buy. But a series of developments, including Android, the plan by Verizon Wireless for a new open-network business, and Symbian's move toward open source, are raising hopes for consumers to get more choice. The trend should spark hardware and software innovation and lead to different uses of mobile networks, Lewis and other panelists said.

Verizon acquired a large portion of spectrum licenses auctioned off earlier this year under rules that require a portion of the frequencies to be open to any device or application, but the carrier started its Open Development Initiative (ODI) late last year. While continuing to offer phones and services as it currently does, Verizon wants to let customers use any device and put any application on that device, Lewis said.

Consumers who want to use the open network will be able to buy devices from retailers and then go to a Verizon Wireless Web portal and choose a service plan, he said.

"We don't want those folks to walk away from Verizon Wireless because they feel like they don't have enough choice," Lewis said.

It may be a testament to Verizon's seriousness about the project that Lewis reports directly to Verizon Wireless President and CEO Lowell McAdam, and the ODI will be responsible for making its own profit or loss. In fact, the business side of the equation is a challenge, he said.

"Designing pricing plans based on this business model versus the existing business model is a huge hurdle to overcome, and it's certainly where I spend most of my time," Lewis said.

For their devices to be allowed on Verizon's network, manufacturers will have to establish that they won't hurt the network. Earlier this month, Verizon announced the first certified device, a wireless monitor for holding tanks, made by SupplyNet.

"Right now, it's leaning toward machine-to-machine devices," because developers of those products were the first to start developing on the carrier's specifications after they were distributed in March, Lewis said. Other such products could include parking meters or home automation systems, he said. But other devices, including handsets, are in the pipeline, he added.

Certifying devices will take no more than four weeks, and typically less, Lewis said.

Verizon's timeline for device certification is very aggressive compared with reviews of devices sold by carriers themselves, said David Rivas, vice president of S60 software technology management at Nokia. That process typically takes two or three months, and sometimes as much as six months, he said. Nokia welcomes Verizon's open initiative, he said.

Google is taking a more hands-off approach with Android developers. There's nothing to keep one from creating something that doesn't comply with the platform, and anyone will be able to validate that a handset is Android-compliant, but there is no incentive to do so, said Rich Miner, group manager of mobile platforms at Google.

"Somebody will only be shooting themselves in the foot if they were to build a noncompliant platform," Miner said.

Google's partner companies in the Open Handset Alliance did agree not to fragment the platform in a way that would make applications incompatible with different versions of Android, he said.

Open mobile platforms, with standardized revenue-sharing systems, will help to get more innovative devices and applications out to consumers and businesses, the panelists said.

In the absence of lengthy software reviews and revenue-sharing negotiations with carriers, mobile application developers are creating new products and venture capitalists are coming in with significant funding for the first time, said Matt Murphy, a partner at venture firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers.

Developers are now saying, "I can be successful without having to rely on people in a carrier boardroom," Murphy said.

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