Nokia just revealed it won’t let phone networks apply any proprietary customization to its hot little MID/smartphone the N900. It’s another sign that in the future your cell-phone network will be way less important than it thinks it is.
Speaking to Reuters, Nokia’s VP for Devices R&D David Rivas explained that Nokia would change its policy versus the way it behaved with Symbian phones, to a new way of thinking with the Maemo-powered N900. Nokia, along with numerous other cell-phone manufacturers, often lets cell-phone networks across the globe apply customization to its phones–including external styling details, and custom UIs that even disable particular capabilities of the phone. But when Apple burst onto the scene with the iPhone, it was a radical departure from that model: In the U.S. there’s no AT&T decal on the phone, and it runs the same UI as iPhones sold everywhere else on the planet. Rivas noted “We have an opportunity, that we are going to take advantage of, with Maemo platform to play the game a little bit more along those lines.”
This is interesting for two reasons–Apple insists on its stance because it maintains an iron-strong grip over the look and feel and usability of its product. The iPhone is seen as a 100% Apple machine, and the cell-phone networks, in Apple’s eyes, are to an extent just a necessary part of the user experience that provide calling and data on the go capability. Nokia’s the largest manufacturer of cell phones in the world, and if it’s slowly coming around to Apple’s way of thinking this will have a big effect on the cell-phone industry.
And why shouldn’t it? Would you let your landline provider decide how your home phone looks, or your wired ISP decide the UI you’re using to access the Web over its service? Nope–they lack design, ergonomic and computing expertise. And yet cell-phone networks still get to decide a little of how your cell phone works and looks–even to the extent that I used to hate using my Samsung BlackJack thanks to Vodafone’s gimping of its UI. It’s a relic of the time when the cell-phone industry was in early-stage bloom, and the networks were all-powerful. Nowadays there are numerous networks, and competition between them has even forced Sprint into announcing its unlimited calling plan to any U.S. cell phone today–effectively removing one of the old distinctions between competing networks.
If Nokia follows up on this idea with other cell phones, and Apple’s iPhone continues to boom, it won’t be long before other manufacturers follow the same route. And then, at some point, your phone’s designers will be all-important, and the cell-phone networks will take a place as the mere wireless data pipeline you choose to use, rather than the lords and masters of your cell phone.