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Summary:

I’d hoped that today’s announcement of Google’s phone would be another iPhone-like bomb set to disrupt wireless carriers and bring a future of affordable, open and ubiquitous mobile connectivity to pass. It isn’t. I suggest two ways for the search giant to help bring that about.

I had hoped that today’s announcement of Google’s phone would be another iPhone-like bomb set to disrupt wireless carriers and bring a future of affordable, open and ubiquitous mobile connectivity to pass. Apple pried open the carrier ecosystem with the iPhone, and its decisions to open up geolocation information and create an app store hurt the business model the carriers rely on even more than the incredible data use it ushered in.

I’d anticipated that given Google’s focus on opening up the 700 MHz auction, pushing white spaces broadband and investment in WiMAX, the Nexus One also would be a hardware-based crowbar. It isn’t, and Google so far seems to be working with the carriers even as it offers its own web store for Android devices. But if Google wants to bring about affordable and open wireless to everyone, as well as encourage more competition in the wireless industry, here are a few steps it should take to bring that about.

Build a phone that can roam: Right now, cell phones are using different wireless technologies and are tuned to various spectrum bands, so unlike choosing say, a WiFi-enabled device, one has to know what type of cell technology you want to operate the device on, such as a CDMA or HSPA network, and you have to know which spectrum you need the signals to travel over.

Without being able to buy a cellular phone or device with the right radios that are tuned to the correct swaths of spectrum, manufacturers still have to choose which carriers they want to build for. This means costs for components can’t drop as rapidly as possible and that some carriers might have a hard time convincing folks to build devices for them.

A software-defined radio could be the key for such a universal handset. Google could contribute dollars or talent to making SDRs  faster, cheaper and more power-efficient so they work inside mobile phones.

Get carriers to ditch SIM cards: The SIM card is the key to the cellular kingdom. Unlike access to a Wi-Fi network or even a corporate LAN, which requires a password and a user name to access, cellular networks only open up to devices that contain the right SIM card. Carriers say they need SIM cards because they’re more secure than a user name and password combo.

But if a consumer wants to put his device on a different network, he has to swap out the SIM or even the gadget itself. This is a barrier to consumers switching networks. If Google can convince a carrier to let a SIM-free device (perhaps biometric access to a network would be secure enough for carriers) onto its network, then we could see the beginning of a world where it’s easy for a device to use the best, lowest-cost network available and pricing for mobile broadband comes way down.

If Google can help build devices that can roam anywhere, across a variety of networks, including Wi-Fi, and can push carriers to find another way to authenticate people on their networks without sacrificing security, then they could release a device that could be just as disruptive as the iPhone.

Related Research: Google’s Mobile Strategy
Google’s mobile strategy is about more than just capturing new ad revenue — its about enabling innovation and boosting access.

Thumbnail image courtesy of Flickr user dahlstroms.

  1. I would argue that the lack of SIM is an obstacle – if you buy a device from Verizon or Sprint, you’re stuck with them for good. Only if you have the ability to roam between protocols (CDMA/GSM/whatever) does a SIM-less world make more sense than the existing GSM infrastructure that prevails in the parts of Earth that aren’t the kind of third-world slopshop American telecom occupies.

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  2. Dilip Andrade Tuesday, January 5, 2010

    There are a number of problems associated with ditching the SIM, all of which are related to compliance with the GSM standard.

    What would go a long way to address the issue is moving in the opposite direction: a phone that can accept a couple of SIMs so that the end users can flip between networks at will. A hone could then use one network for voice an another for data, it could have multiple incoming numbers (a particular boon to those of us who want to separate work and personal but don’t want two physical devices)

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    1. Good points. Multiple SIMs seem cumbersome for the average consumer, but virtualizing the SIM is something I’d like to learn more about.

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  3. Everyone is continuously amazed at the latest Apple successes, but the secret formula that they use is actually deceptively simple.

    Just give people what they want. Voila, you changed the world.

    Apple is able to do this because they are a technology powerhouse. If the music industry can’t agree on how to work together to give the customer what they want then Apple builds the iPod and iTunes and skips over them.

    If the mobile carriers can’t agree on how to provide internet access, portals, email and applications on a device then Apple builds the iPhone and the App Store a skips over them.

    If Newspapers and magazines and print-based media can’t come together to figure out a way to be profitable again and provide a content experience that people want then Apple builds the.. oh, wait.. that hasn’t been announced yet..

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  4. [...] that I think will stick as, similar to what Stacey Higginbotham says in her recent article [here], this device doesn’t necessarily cause a massive disruption in the industry (as the iPhone [...]

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  5. As Dilip Mentioned, dictching the SIM would be technically difficult, and politically unacceptable for MNOs.

    Actually HAVING a SIM for North American CDMA MNOs would enable more openness: customers would be able to switch from Sprint to VZW for instance… having a world phone (CDMA/GSM, or LTE someday) would do the trick (As Jon wrote)

    Back on the SIM topic, MNOs have hedge their bets on the only thing that have full control on: the SIM.

    I have worked for a Top-Tier French MNO (As a consultant) on designing their future products roadmap, and SIM was viewed as the enabler of their most of their roadmap: NFC (Someday will in real world), Mobile TV, On-Card Portals…
    We even decided to push the SIM as a host for applications (OTA or not) and on USB keys as an authentification device (Enabling a Credit Card security level: World First, now reach EAL 5 level http://www.trusted-labs.com/pdf/PR_Certification_Evolutive.pdf)

    My point is that that most GSM MNOs will not ditch the SIM anytime soon… even if the SIM needs a quantum leap in terms of architecture… (From VisionMobile: http://www.visionmobile.com/blog/2008/03/the-sim-card-evolution-finally-a-breakthrough/)

    Maybe a software or Virtual SIM would do the trick (I can’t say much more: would have to kill you all, and then commit suppuku…)

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  6. [...] to FCC: Let My Landlines Go! See All Articles » The Google Phone Won’t Open Up the [...]

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  7. Roaming is easy provided you have a quad band unlocked GSM phone. Why is the nexus one tri-band and not quad-band is anyones guess.. maybe pressure from AT&T and Apple ?

    As noted before the SIM card is simple and just works. Want to switch carriers – Just pop out your sim and put another sim in and you are ready to go. If you buy a new phone, pop the sim in and most of your contacts go with you to the new phone. Some people would argue that this is simpler than remembering a username and password.

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    1. Hmm… the Nexus One is a quad-band GSM phone. Look at thye specs here:
      http://www.google.com/phone/static/en_US-nexusone_tech_specs.html

      SIM card wise, I agree that SIM cards are enablers. However, even if all phones had SIM cards, I doubt that the carriers would let people simply switch networks… especially here in America where people are still very much tied to subsidized phones.

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  8. I think the SIM card itself is a device that Google should leverage.

    I’ve seen SIM cards with 1 GB or 2 GB memory and the ability to run lots of software. Also there a multi IMSI cards that make your phone a member of up to 16 different networks. You don’t have to pay for roaming because your SIM card is local in every country.

    Maybe Google should ditch devices alltogether and develop a super SIM card with Android on it? ;)

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  9. Stacey, I like where you are going in your reporting on the strategic significance of yesterday’s launch of the Google “Phone Store.” My sense is that this is the first of 3 disruptions in store for the cellphone industry. The next will be for Google to allow people to port their existing phone number to Google Voice. The third will be the emergence of data-only plans from either the carriers (more likely) or Google itself (less likely). Its interesting to think about how the Google Phone Store (watch out for Dell to launch the same) insinuates Google into the customer relationship and allows it to connect the user, a mobile software platform and a transaction processing system. This gives Google all the necessary components for a mobile payment system. I think it will be very interesting for a capable journalist such as your good self, to map “The Great Disruption: How Google Brought Down the Telcos.” On an aside, re your interest in virtual SIMS, check out the product offered by Roamsimple.com. It allows you to log in to a web-based account and program your own SIM. Looking forward to further coverage from you on this exciting space.

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  10. “Build a phone that can roam: ” – i am living in a 3rd world country where i can change my number without bothering about spectrum. America should go the standard way instead of locking themselves to carriers!!

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