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Balkanizing the telephony platform

Two very encouraging developments at ETel were programs and technologies announced by Orange and BT.  Orange’s Ndiata Kalonji talked about a social networking platfrom which Orange is working on, which exposes some of the elements of the IMS framework via web services. BT  had a talk on day 2, which was mostly a BT pitch, but included an intriguing slide at the end talking about a new developer program as well.

A cautionary note: I haven’t examined either of these programs in detail (hard to do so based on slideware), so the following may be completely meritless, but I will say it anyway.

So why am I worried?

As software developers we need consistent platforms.  Nirvana is having one platform to target, test against, and ship with. It’s nearly impossible to build compelling cross platform experiences in a heterogeneous world, which is why, with very few exceptions most companies in the personal computing world target Windows, the Mac, or Linux. 

There’s a very uncomfortable specter raising its head in the communications world.  There are simply too many platforms.   Orange has a developer program.  So do BT, and Cingular.  With over 300 mobile carriers worldwide, will each carrier have a developer platform?  A separate program?

On the handset side, there are also three or four dominant platforms — RIM, Symbian, Microsoft, and the older BREW platform.  J2ME, MIDP2… and what about the new Linux based platforms?  Worse yet, there aren’t consistent builds of the platform on each handset.  At iotum we were recently bitten by a dependency on an API that a particular carrier hadn’t loaded on the device being shipped.  Only some devices…

The balkanization of platforms and networks is eerily reminiscent of the world of online services in the early 1990’s.  At that time AOL, and Compuserve were the dominant players, with proprietary platforms targeting developers.  The newcomer on the block, MSN, had a terribly sophisticated tool called Blackbird under development for years.  Ultimately, all these platforms were swept aside by the internet, and the online services forced open their walled gardens by new players like Yahoo!

Who is the Yahoo of telephony?  Will the promise of new telephony applications be strangled by carrier balkanization of the platform?  Or can they agree on a unified and open platform for developers to target?

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