AT&T, Verizon Grudgingly Move Toward Openness

Maybe I’ve been covering mobile for too long. Maybe I’m too jaded to appreciate a true turning point when I see one.

There’s a chance we have just witnessed a crucial — revolutionary, even — week for the U.S. wireless industry as major carriers open up their networks and businesses. Or we may just be seeing the nation’s two top network operators play their cards in a crafty effort to fend of regulators as the FCC increasingly signals its eagerness to intervene in an industry that has become a must-have means of communication for mainstream Americans.

There’s at least some truth in each scenario. Honestly, though, I’m not sure it matters.

Carriers for years have governed the mobile space like Stalin-era bureaucracies, dictating not just what kind of phones people use but also controlling the services and content they could access. But the industry is in the midst of a seismic shift. The first potential sign of the mobile apocalypse came early Tuesday, when Verizon Wireless announced its tie-up with Google’s Android platform. The nation’s largest carrier — which has earned its reputation as a conservative, closed network operator — said it will pre-load Android Market on handsets and market the apps to its 85 million subscribers.

That news was followed just hours later by AT&T’s announcement that it will allow iPhone users to make VoIP calls over its 3G network. The move reversed a policy that had drawn a firestorm of criticism from tech enthusiasts and consumer-watchdog groups, and had drawn the attention of the FCC.

Indeed, it’s easy to chalk up both moves as a reaction to the FCC, which has demonstrated an eagerness to engage — some might say meddle — with the mobile industry under new Chairman Julius Genachowski. And it’s certainly possible to read too much into both developments. Apple remains mum about Google Voice, the telephone-management app that it rejected from its App Store (and kept out of the hands of AT&T users) a few months ago. Meanwhile, we have yet to see how much control Verizon is willing to truly sacrifice as it rolls out Android, whose Market storefront is far less monitored than Apple’s App Store.

Regardless of the motivating factors, though, the impact of the week’s news will be huge. AT&T’s support for 3G VoIP calls throws open the door not just for Skype but also for startups like Jaxtr, mig33, iSkoot, Truphone and Fring, many of which enhance their voice offerings with compelling social-networking components — and many of which come to the table with wads of venture-capital cash. Similarly, support from the nation’s No. 1 carrier should provide a huge boost for Android and its developer community, which will gain access to a massive base of users who’ve never had access to a modern app store. From a venture-capital point of view, the mobile-application space — which already was a white-hot segment — is sure to get that much hotter.

It’s probably too early to say whether we’re in the midst of a mobile revolution, and yes, I’m sure AT&T and Verizon are smiling through gritted teeth as they move toward more open business models. But that doesn’t change the fact that those moves are unprecedented, and will impact the industry in huge ways. I may be a cynic, but I’m pretty excited about what last week’s developments mean for the mobile industry — and, more importantly, for the people who depend on it every day.

Question of the week

How big an impact will last week’s moves by AT&T and Verizon have in the mobile industry?