Will Apple break the Walled Garden

Cellular operators decided to get on the Internet browsing bandwagon many years ago. When they first started, Wireless Internet browsing was behest with numerous problems. First, the data networking technologies were so slow. If that wasn’t bad enough, they helped develop a technology called WAP that made it even slower to browse content. Second, mobile phones had very small screens, so only a small amount of a page could be seen. On top of that, it was very difficult to scroll up and down. Third, and to make matters even worse, wireless carriers wanted to control what content can be seen by customers, so that wireless operators could extract revenue from both sides – customers and content providers.

Fast forward to today, June 29th of 2007. Some things have changed. Data networking technologies are much faster. Sprint, Verizon, Alltel and U.S. Cellular have networks with download speeds of 400-800 kbps, while AT&T and T-Mobile have somewhat slower networks. Nonetheless, these networks are much faster than when Web 1.0 went bust. Screen sizes for mobile devices, especially of smart phones, Blackberrys, and PDAs, have increased dramatically, although most mobile devices still have small screens. Carrier control of content, the “walled garden”, exists for most phones but smartphones and Blackberrys can access any website.

Some things still haven’t. Even though smartphones and Blackberrys can access any website, they still use a cHTML or other browser that is not fully compliant with the web. This means that loading a website is still slow and cumbersome. Despite the larger screens, scrolling up and down is still cumbersome. Overall, a seemingly mundane task as browsing the web is an adventure on mobile devices.

Enter the iPhone. Its web browser, a version of Apple’s Safari browser, can render any web page as good as any web browser. With a 3.5-inch screen, web pages will show much better than on pretty much any mobile device. With the multi-touch touch screen, users will be able to scroll up, down, and sideways with ease. The browser also has a capability to zoom in (magnify) and out of any area of the screen.

The iPhone clearly goes against the walled garden approach of many wireless carriers. In the U.S. Verizon Wireless and Sprint Nextel are big on this approach and uses Qualcomm’s BREW software to contain users within the walled garden. Don’t get me wrong, BREW has benefits too.

Now that the iPhone is looking more and more like a runaway success, it will become a catalyst for bigger screens, multi-touch displays, and open access to websites. With AT&T, the largest wireless carrier in the U.S., leading the way with the iPhone, others will have little choice to but to open-up their walled gardens.

Winners: AT&T

Losers: Verizon Wireless, Sprint Nextel, Qualcomm.