Let My Handsets Go!

We’ve always been amazed at how, in North America, mobile carriers perpetuated a captive business model that in the computing world went out of style nearly two decades ago. So it was ironic when release of yet another proprietary system – the iPhone – opened the first crack in the captive turnkey systems environment that was the North American mobile market.

Since then, the iPhone has carved out a powerful niche in the market, Google’s noises have prodded the FCC to reserve new spectrum for open devices, while Microsoft has made limited impact with Windows Mobile. But for the core of the mobile market, it’s still been business as usual. Until now, handset makers have been the odd men out.

However, as mobile devices morph into computing platforms, something has to give if you ever expect to see a critical mass market for mobile apps. It will have to follow the same script as the PC, which provided a critical mass target that led to explosion of what became the consumer software market.

Today’s announcement of the Eclipse Pulsar initiative is the handset maker’s revenge. Led by Motorola, Nokia and Genuitec, with participation from IBM, RIM and Sony Ericsson Mobile Communications, Pulsar is a new Eclipse effort to develop a common IDE that would support different handsets through a series of device profile plug-ins. The idea is that handset makers have better things to do than keep reinventing the wheel with their own unique development tools.

Pulsar is a modest but important first step towards creating a coherent target for mobile app developers. Until now, the market for mobile handset environments has been very fragmented, with no single OS or presentation layer having more than 10% of the market. Because the carriers controlled what went on their market, it took away motivation on the part of handset makers to agree on standards of any sort when it came to development targets. Apple’s iPhone App Store was the shot across the brow that prompted them to act.

Pulsar won’t rationalize the mobile app development market on its own, as there will still be a proliferation of profiles that govern which apps can make it onto which devices. But in the long run it will make it more economically attractive for device makers to rationalize their offerings so that software developers gain critical mass targets. Ideally, device profiles should hide the complexity of writing to different handset models, just as printer drivers for PCs have eliminated the burden for software developers to account for different printers. It will open wide opportunities for players like Adobe, whose Open Screen Project encourages developers to write their own Flash mobile players.

In actuality, as handsets plays such widely different roles to different classes of customers, it will never be that simple. Instead, what is likely is that handsets will divide into different classes, from basic phone to PDA and gaming or entertainment platform, and so on, with each type of device likely fitting within some form of de facto standard. Pressure for rationalization will come from the fact that devoice makers want to draw more application software support, which in turn makes them more attractive to consumers for what becomes the open market.