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Verizon wants its software on mobile phones

After the dust settles from an expected wave of mobile operating system wars, Verizon thinks it can emerge unscathed with its own software strategy.

Verizon executives Lowell McAdam (left) and Ivan Seidenberg plan to keep Verizon on a software development path. Maggie Reardon/CNET

LAS VEGAS--Verizon Wireless doesn't care who emerges from the coming mobile operating system wars because no matter who wins, Verizon will make sure its software runs on top of that operating system.

"I don't think I need to bet on an operating system," said Lowell McAdam, CEO of Verizon Wireless, in a question-and-answer session at CTIA 2009 Wednesday. "I need to bet on layers that will bridge those operating systems."

McAdam was referring to the news announced Wednesday that Verizon Wireless will join the Joint Innovation Lab (JIL) created by its corporate parent, Vodafone, along with China Mobile and Softbank. JIL plans to build "mobile widgets" for future phones that will apparently run on whatever operating systems Verizon decides to support on its future smartphones.

Seven organizations are currently jockeying for the inside track to run the mobile computer of the future. Symbian, Research in Motion, Apple, Google, Microsoft, Palm, and the LiMo Foundation are all fighting to get their software established as the platform of the future, and not all of them are going to make it: choice is a good thing, but too many choices overwhelms developers and carriers, not to mention users.

Earlier in his keynote address, Verizon Communications CEO Ivan Seidenberg predicted that the current list would get whittled down as the industry coalesces around "an open operating environment." He did not, of course, say which ones Verizon is eyeing, and neither Seidenberg nor McAdam took that bait in the Q&A session following the keynote.

McAdam did say, however, that "three, maybe four" would survive. Verizon's plan with JIL appears to be an extension of its historical strategy of putting its own software--things like VCast--on its phones, which gives it the ability to tightly control what applications run on its network and extend its brand into software and entertainment. For example, Verizon, as part of JIL, will create games for future phones on its network, McAdam said.

It will be interesting to see how Verizon's software works with the applications created by other developers, such as the ones that will appear on the BlackBerry Storm now that BlackBerry App World is up and running. Widgets by definition are pretty lightweight applications, but how Verizon chooses to prioritize those applications on its devices could determine how widely they are used versus applications created by third parties.

This probably also means that barring a major change on strategy, Apple and Verizon are unlikely to hook up any time soon. Right now, there's the obvious barrier in the different networking standards used by the iPhone and phones on Verizon's network, but the companies seem very philosophically opposed when it comes to software: it's hard to imagine Apple agreeing to let Verizon run its own widgets on the iPhone.

It also means Verizon is still bent on avoiding a fate as a "dumb pipe," leaving the software development to others and just making sure its network is running smoothly. As usual, it all comes down to money: people will spend a fortune over the next ten years on mobile software and services, and Verizon wants to make sure it is part of the action.