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Open iPhone to Developers

More than a year before he announced the iPhone, Steve Jobs told an audience at the Wall Street Journal’s All Things Digital conference, “we’re not very good going through orifices to get to the end users.” By “orifices” Jobs meant cell phone companies. Of course, he ultimately did make an exclusive deal with AT&T to provide both voice and data service for the phone Apple released June 29.

But AT&T isn’t the only orifice between end users and the phone. Apple is as well. That’s because the phone is largely closed to software developers.

True, there is a way to develop Web applications inside the phone’s Safari Web browser, but it’s not the same as offering native applications that run on the phone, which is certainly possible. The iPhone runs OS X – the same operating system used on Macs – which would make it pretty easy for developers to create custom applications.

It’s not as if there aren’t examples of phones that run plenty of programs. People with smart-phones that run under the Windows Mobile, Palm or Symbian operating systems already enjoy access to numerous applications from a variety of developers.

Of course, smart-phones make up only about 10 percent of the market, but as it turns out, most cell phone users can choose among hundreds of available programs.

I’m carrying around a Samsung M500 phone from Sprint. It’s not particularly fancy nor, at $79.99, all that expensive, but in addition to numerous built-in applications, it has a “My Content” icon on the main menu that is a gateway to hundreds of games and applications.

Many of the applications cost money, but that’s true with PC software as well. There are a ton of GPS navigation programs, reference tools, learning games, dictionaries, financial tools and more – all for a phone that doesn’t even have an alpha keyboard.

Some of these applications come from Sprint, but others come from third-party developers – the type of companies that make Windows and Mac so rich in diversity.

This little flip phone from a company not known for supporting a plethora of software is far more open than the iPhone, which comes from one of the companies whose personal computers helped spawn the PC software industry.

Had Apple taken the same tack with its Apple II that it does with the iPhone, we might never have been blessed with VisiCalc and the other great programs that made that and subsequent PCs so useful.

While Apple and AT&T are free to put locks around their newfangled iPhone, help may be on the way from, of all places, the FCC.

The federal agency’s upcoming auction for 700 MHz radio spectrum could create an open playing field for developers if reported draft plans materialize in the final rules. The agency is considering requiring any devices that use that spectrum be open to consumers and developers to create applications to run on the phones.

This might be bad news for the likes of AT&T, Sprint and Verizon, but it would be great news for consumers and for Google, Microsoft or anyone else that wants to create applications to run on these phones.

Rather than having to go through an “orifice,” developers will be free to create interesting programs and services that finally break the stranglehold of the telcos over what people can do with the devices they own.

To be fair, I haven’t seen the proposed rules (has anyone?) so I don’t know exactly what FCC chief Kevin Martin and his fellow commissioners will come up with, but if it winds up opening up the networks to innovation and competition, that would be a major step forward.

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