Verizon made a surprise move yesterday and joined the recently established Open Handset Alliance, Google’s organization for promoting open software development for cellphones and other handhelds. The move will see Verizon use Google’s Linux-based, open-source Android operating system on some phones. The software is an “enabler” that will let Verizon move towards an open platform, says company chief Lowell McAdam.
The decision comes just days after Verizon announced its unlocked device strategy, which will create a second tier of service that allows users to use unlocked phones and other devices and run software that has not been explicitly sanctioned by the carrier, including potentially competitive software such as VoIP tools. Previously, Verizon has often been held as an example of the restrictiveness allowed by American telecom regulations, with the company often insisting on its customized software and disabling hardware features such as Bluetooth file transfers to drive customers to paid services.
This change of heart was first triggered by efforts from Google and others to insist that the upcoming FCC auction for the 700MHz frequency band come with an open access rule, according to McAdam. The rule would obligate any winning bidder to allow any compatible device and any software to run on a service using the airspace. Verizon initially resisted the move, trying to sue to protect its business model and engage in suspicious lobbying but quickly dropping these efforts. Android helps as its open nature makes it reasonable to offer a similarly open service, the Verizon chief says.
The sudden switch leaves three out of four major US carriers embracing the Open Handset Alliance, potentially isolating and increasing pressure on AT&T. While Sprint and T-Mobile signed on as Alliance launch partners, AT&T has so far remained on the sidelines and is only considering the move while retaining its existing policy. As a GSM provider, AT&T is more open and allows users to run non-sanctioned, unlocked devices with a valid SIM (subscriber information) card but has not made any plans to carry phones of its own with unrestricted software.