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Mobile web polarizes as duellists pick their seconds

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The two largest US cellcos went on the warpath this week with contrasting statements about their web strategies.

Verizon Wireless formed a far reaching partnership with Google, echoing the search giant's existing alliance with Sprint and pointing to Android dominance of the CDMA carriers' own-branded web services platforms, which will be vital to differentiation in the open access world, and will take shape from 2010.

AT&T is exploring its own options to create an AT&T mobile web experience that will compensate for falling data rates and the loss of the usual carrier lock-in weapons – exclusives, subsidies and closed network/software platforms. It increasingly seems to be distancing itself from Google and turning to a range of partners usually more associated with European operators, from Opera to Nokia.

The three mobile web models

The mobile web world is likely to break into three distinct battlefields from next year, and major carriers will have to take account of all three. First, the conventional smartphone approach, where the phonemaker and carrier engage in a tug-of-war over brand visibility and commercial relationship, but the handset itself is the key to customer choice.

This choice increasingly rests on the availability of downloadable apps and the overall software environment of the phone, not just hardware features. Of course, the premier example of this in the US has been the AT&T-iPhone relationship, which Verizon Wireless has failed to match for impact with a branded smartphone range that relies heavily on BlackBerry and Windows Mobile.

It is likely to ally with Android manufacturers such as Motorola and HTC to redress this balance, but its initial Android announcements, made with Google this week ahead of the CTIA Wireless and Entertainment show in San Diego, fall into the second mobile internet category. This is the creation of an operator branded platform, with a distinctive set of user interfaces, applications (with the mandatory store) and mass market webphones.

In this model, the carrier tries to keep customers loyal by offering a cost effective, usable and attractive web experience from which users, especially those below the smartphone uplands, will feel comfortable, even when not tied in by a long contract or closed network. To make this model work at all, operators need to move well beyond their conventional and limited portals and attract large bases of developers and device partners - as Vodafone has epitomized with its transition from old-style Live! to its new Vodafone 360 (see separate item on Telco 2.0).

They also need to harness the differentiation they can derive from their networks, opening proprietary features such as address books and location to third party programmers. The operator branded 'smart pipe' approach is much discussed, but actual offerings are only just emerging – Orange Partner, China Mobile oFone, Vodafone 360, and now Verizon and AT&T are trying to create their own offerings.

The third mobile web model could disrupt the other two in time, but only when wireless networks have the capacity and robustness to support vast amounts of data traffic and still generate profit for their operators. This means WiMAX and LTE, probably both in their next iterations, plus plentiful spectrum and advanced new networks and devices geared to maximum efficiency.

This is the 'Google vision', where the browser replaces the functions of the full-blown operating system and all applications are created and run in the browser, using standard techniques like HTML 5 and JavaScript, with data and back end processes located in the 'cloud'. Downloads, apps optimized for specific devices or networks, and semi-closed portals all disappear in favour of a fully open web akin to that on the PC – where, of course, the carrier becomes a bit pipe rather than a smart pipe.

Current networks do not support this however, as highlighted by Google itself in its eagerness to work closely with the carriers it eventually seeks to sideline, pushing Android even as it develops Chrome as the browser/OS of the future. This raises the ironic prospect of Palm webOS being closer to the open web dream than Google itself (see inset).

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