Mobile Web leaders push for open standards

Tim Berners-Lee -- the so-called father of the World Wide Web, talks about the importance of open standards

The technological barriers and business models that have led to the current morass of proprietary handheld devices, closed-off carrier networks, and specialized wireless applications must be eliminated if the mobile Internet is to become as powerful and ubiquitous as it should someday be, according to industry leaders.

Content providers, applications developers, and mobile carriers, along with standards backers like Tim Berners-Lee -- the so-called father of the World Wide Web -- stumped for greater openness in the platforms being used to develop future wireless online systems at the ongoing Mobile Internet World conference in Boston this week.

While the lion's share today's of mobile Web applications do not work across multiple devices, wireless service plans, and software environments, the potential of the mobile Internet will only be realized when providers across the industry shift from proprietary systems to open standards, experts presenting at the conference said.

Representatives from carrier Sprint Nextel, phone maker Nokia, applications vendor Opera, and even content producer MTV pledged their commitments at the conference to embrace the call of industry leaders like Berners-Lee to move away from the proprietary systems they have previously fostered and to adopt more standards-based platforms.

Frequently referencing the launch of Google's Android mobile Linux software environment -- meant to help developers and carriers build applications and services that work across large numbers of different devices -- as a rallying point for the larger industry, nearly every speaker at the inaugural Mobile Internet World conference echoed the calls for a shift away from closed systems.

"The most important thing about the Web is that it is universal, that it can run on any hardware, use any software, in any language, and be used by people with disabilities," Berners-Lee said to a packed room of several hundred attendees.

"At the [World Wide Web Consortium], we've been focused on using standards, and it's very important that the mobile Internet platforms use the same standards," he said. "We've already seen a number of false starts where that didn't happen, and what people are realizing is that if you make yourself into a walled garden and block out everything from the outside, you find in the end that the flowers all grow on the outside."

Berners-Lee said that his invention of the World Wide Web would have never had the same unilateral influence and adoption that it has enjoyed if it had been created only to work on a certain type of device or operating system.

"It was crucial that you didn't have to ask anyone for permission to put a new application on the network. If you had to do that, the Internet wouldn't have grown, and the World Wide Web as we know it wouldn't have happened," he said. "It's very important that it was designed as an open platform, not something which tried to control or extract money from what's built on top of it."

For the mobile Internet to flourish, said the expert, carriers, along with applications and device makers, must see the larger opportunity that will exist if they are able to abandon their closed-off networks, handhelds, and programs and buy into the open standards approach, he said.

"Under this open model, you will end up making money not because you have a large piece of the cake, but because the cake is enormous," said Berners-Lee. "If you bet on standards and they don't happen, you haven't really lost a lot, but if you do bet on them and they take off, whoa."

In the United States, carriers in particular have been accused of halting broader development and adoption of mobile Web tools based on their business models that have mostly allowed only those programs developed by their partners to find a way onto the devices and services they support.

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