Wireless carriers: You can't install apps on our phones, and it's for your own good

At the Under the Radar confab, a panel of U.S. wireless carrier representatives justify closed systems.

Rafe Needleman Former Editor at Large
Rafe Needleman reviews mobile apps and products for fun, and picks startups apart when he gets bored. He has evaluated thousands of new companies, most of which have since gone out of business.
Rafe Needleman
3 min read

At about 18 and a half minutes into a panel I was co-hosting at the Under the Radar: Mobility conference on Wednesday, things began to get ugly. Our panelists on the "No filters: Ask the carriers anything" session were representatives from U.S. wireless carriers Verizon Wireless, Alltell, T-Mobile, and AT&T. We took an audience question from an entrepreneur who was trying to start up an SMS-based business. He was frustrated because he had to jump through hoops to get the carriers to look at his service before he could roll it out. He appeared to reflect a general dissatisfaction that entrepreneurs have with the carriers for all mobile apps: They're gatekeepers.

Rupert Young of AT&T started to answer his query by talking about the value of shielding customers from bad SMS services, and that was bad enough, but he got himself in real trouble when he started to justify the roadblocks the carriers put in front of apps developers who are trying to get their code put onto the wireless networks.

"The thing to remember...is support," he said. People don't get tons of SMS spam in the U.S., because the carriers restrict businesses from accessing consumers directly. "Some would say it's protecting the consumer, some would say it's stifling innovation. The same is true with applications. And the end of the day, today, we take the call. If the customer installs an app on their phone that doesn't work, we take the call, not the app developer."

You could put the support cost back on the developer, as Verizon is doing. He didn't seem ready to adopt that scheme for AT&T, though. As Young said, you can "change the model and be more open to letting more innovative apps on your phone. Other than the fact that you still have to be concerned about...does the app burn the power levels on my phone? Does the app use tons of network and hit my usage caps and I don't know it? We work very closely with developers to make sure the user has a very good experience. That may slow down innovation, but I think it produces a better experience for the customer who has a limited device."

But I found the answer unsatisfying, and I said so. "You're gating innovation," I said. The audience applauded--which I was not expecting. Young, in reaction, said Apple also gated innovation, which is true, but the audience wasn't having it. Young smiled uncomfortably and barely moved his body out of the insouciant slouch that he had adopted at the start of the panel. One got the impression he knew he could not win the argument with entrepreneurs and didn't want to make himself into a target any more than he had to.

Later on in the session, we discussed a potential alternative to the restrictions that the carriers like AT&T put on new mobile apps. We talked about Where.com, an platform masquerading as an application. Developers who want to put quick geo-based apps in front of users can write widgets for the Where.com app. Users then choose those widgets from the Where.com site and their mobile phone gets access to them.

It's a workaround, but it does let developers who want to get on the mobile platform deal with a middleman developer who has already done the hard work of getting carrier approval for installation on phones, instead of having to get approval directly, which is, as Young indicated, not so easy. Plus, you don't have to deal with Young.

For developers, of course, tying one's fortunes to the success of a middleman app is not a strategy for the long term. But it is a decent way to get some exposure and to experiment with features while you wait for the carriers to figure out how to open up their platforms.

And to be fair, Young admitted that as handheld devices become more like "real computers," the support model will change and customers will take to installing and removing their own apps, as they do on the iPhone.

In the meantime, some of the carriers just aren't going to budge. If you want to get your cool new app on all the mainstream phones, there's no easy way. There are, though, other opportunities to work with the mobile carriers, if you're looking for a business to start. Watch the video for some hints.