To encourage participants to speak candidly, the proceedings at the Rutberg “Wireless Influencers” conferences are held away from the prying eyes of journalists. A few interesting ideas popped up during the discussions at the 2008 event over the last two days – but because of the confidentiality rules, I’m not able to name the people who raised these ideas (so I can’t give credit where credit is due).
The common theme of these ideas is the clash of openness and regulation – and (in some cases) the attempt to find creative solutions to this clash.
The first example arose during a talk by a representative from a major operator. The talk described the runaway success one of their products was experiencing in a third world country. This product involves the use of mobile phones to transfer money. The speaker said that the main reason this product could not be deployed in more developed countries (to address use cases like simplifying the payment of money to a teenage baby sitter, or transfering cash to your children) is the deadhand of financial regulations: banks aren’t keen to allow operators to take over some of the functions that have traditionally been restricted to banks, so operators are legally barred from deploying these applications.
I found this ironic. Normally operators are the companies that are criticised for setting up regulatory systems that have the effect of maintaining their control over various important business processes (and thereby preserving their profits). But in this case, it was an operator who was criticising another part of industry for self-interestedly sheltering behind regulations.
Later in the day, one of the streams at the event discussed whether operators could ever allow users to install whatever applications they want, on their phones. The analogy was made with the world of the PC: the providers of network services for PCs generally have no veto over the applications which users choose to install. On the other hand, in some enterprise situations, a corporate IS department may well wish to impose that kind of control. In other words, for PCs, there is a range of different degrees of openness, depending on the environment. So, could a similar range of different degrees of openness be set up for mobile phones?
The idea here is that several different networks could form. In some, the network operator would impose restrictions on the applications that can be installed on the phones. In others, the network operators would be more permissive. In the second kind of network, users would be told that it was their own responsibility to deal with any unintended consequences from applications they installed.
Ideally, a kind of market would be formed, for networks that had different degrees of openness. Then we could let normal market dynamics determine which sort of network would flourish.
Could such a market actually be formed? Could closed networks and open networks co-exist? It seems worth thinking about.
And here’s one more twist – from a keynote discussion on the second day of the event. Rather than a network operator (or some other central certification authority) deciding which applications are suitable for installation on users’ phones, how about using the power of community ratings to push bad applications way down the list of available applications?
That’s an intriguing Web 2.0 kind of idea. On a network operating with this principle, most users would only see apps that had already received positive reviews. Apps that had bad consequences would instead receive bad reviews – and would therefore disappear off the bottom of the list of apps displayed in response to search queries. “Just like on YouTube”.