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Mobile devices not so open when carriers' bottom line is threatened

While next-generation mobile phones are more open and play nicer with third-party developers, some applications are still taboo, particularly when they intersect with service provider interests.

Third-party developers are finding that the mobile industry's pledge to open up its networks and devices holds true as long as developers don't create applications that hurt mobile carriers' bottom line.

For instance, Google's upcoming Android OS promises unmatched openness to developers, which had companies like Life360 excited. The company was looking to take its nascent emergency communications service mobile, and an open platform such as Android appeared to be a good opportunity.  

Life360's service hopes to help families survive emergencies, providing services that range from disaster planning to sending out blast alerts by text message, phone and email to family members, neighbors and public safety agencies if, for example, a fire breaks out.

The early advertised capabilities of Google's not-yet-released Android platform would mean that Life360 could do things on it they could not do with any other platform -- according to Chris Hulls, CEO for Life360 -- such as using a phone accelerometer to actively detect whether a car is in a crash or to receive alerts if a child is missing in the area.

"Going back to November, there was really nothing that could do what the Android was doing for developers," Hulls said. And Google returned the love, naming Life360's application one of 10 Android Developer Challenge winners and giving the company a nice $275,000 prize.

But despite the accolades, there are some features that Life360 could not touch.

"We were hoping to build a VoIP application into our product as well -- in case voice systems are down, you could make a call out," Hulls said. "But Google intentionally did not provide a SIP stack in the SDK, even though it would be really, really easy to. I asked them about it, and I never got a straight answer … and it seemed like that was maybe intentional."

VoIP has been a particularly tricky component for mobile phone manufacturers and the third-party developers they depend on to serve their users' needs.

Many carriers see VoIP, which uses typically unlimited or large wireless data connections, as a threat to their voice-minute sales, even as the amount they can charge for each of those minutes is shrinking.

"Carriers can defeat anything they choose to," said Jack Gold, principal of J. Gold Associates. "They are actually putting developers in the penalty box at this point."

Nokia, which powers its smartphone line with Symbian, has long been viewed as one of the bigger supporters of third-party software, but it, too, recently pulled some SIP support from many of its consumer handsets, leading to reports that carriers have been pressuring device manufacturers to restrict VoIP capabilities on their phones. ( Nokia does not quite deny these reports while insisting that it still backs VoIP.

VoIP is the most prominent and perhaps most vociferously telecom-attacked feature, but it's not the only one in danger of pushback as providers seek to protect their revenue streams.

"Things like IM -- if IM is impacting their texting revenues -- I can see them putting restriction on," Gold said. Location-based services, on-phone navigation, and even social networking functionality all might find themselves in danger of telecom-backed restrictions.

And though developers are always free to approach telecoms directly – and tap into a vast built-in market – there are downsides with that approach as well.

"I have talked to developers who've targeted specific carriers," Gold said. "The carriers hem and haw, and it can take them two years to get out there."

For developers and the handset manufacturers that try to please them, however, there is hope.

"The carriers want to have complete control, but they're stifling development," Gold said. "At some level, they're going to have to open up."

The iPhone has added some pressure on carriers and expanded users' expectations about what third-party applications can do. But Gold said the real kicker might be WiMax services delivered from the likes of Clearwire, which will deliver a pure IP experience, where VoIP is just another enabled service rather than a competing one.

"Competition's going to have to come from the outside, but it is coming," Gold said.

As for Life360, Hulls said he was happy with Android and the company's mobile product. He pointed out that the service's mobile components, which Life360 hopes to expand to iPhone and possibly Windows Mobile, are only a small part of the company's strategy.

"[Lack of VoIP] is not going to kill us," he said. "Does it worry me on the margins? A little bit; but I think history repeats itself -- things typically get more open than more closed."

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