My very last meeting at the CTIA trade show was with Helio, the new cell-phone carrier run by Internet billionaire Sky Dayton. I went in with high hopes. I came out saddened.Dayton’s other company is Earthlink, and he was supposed to bring a fresh perspective to the cell-phone industry. Mobile phone hardware and content development in this country has been stymied by carriers’ obsessions with control. Because every phone must be approved by a few carrier apparatchiks, because every game must be vetted for a carrier’s deck, we don’t see the speed of innovation in mobile phones that we have on the Internet. Nothing can ever grow from the grass roots.
Competition brings innovation, but the mobile-phone world is a Soviet-style economy.Helio was supposed to be open. Helio was supposed to bring the hottest Asian phones to the USA, and hey, if you have a phone they don’t sell, they’d let you activate it. Helio was supposed to have full Internet browsing, Wi-Fi integration, open standards, and a focus on freedom via the latest technology. Helio could have blown open the doors and brought the US to the peak of the mobile world.Unfortunately, what I heard from Dayton this time around was, Helio is Amp’d, a notch upscale. They’ll offer two phones (including the Kickflip, at left) without Web browsers or even Bluetooth (even Amp’d has a Web browser and Bluetooth!) and, apparently, lots of BMX and wrestling videos. Or some sort of other similar, usual, walled-garden, “xtreme”ly stupid content that nobody really wants, but that they could get licensing for.
Excuse me while I can’t decide whether to yawn or to cry.Helio’s tie-ins with MySpace and, more recently, Yahoo! don’t improve my mood. They’re still coming from the old Soviet perspective of, “you’ll use the sites we approve/optimize for you,” not the Internet perspective of, “let’s put some open standards out and let a million options bloom, including ones we might not have thought of.”I’m hoping I misunderstood. I’m still looking forward to Helio’s launch and to reviewing their phones. I want them to change my mind, because I want someone to shatter the old way of doing business. The nation doesn’t need another carrier retreading the same worn road in search of the frat-boy market so deeply plumbed by Amp’d and Virgin. The cell phone nation needs freedom; I guess we’ll have to look for another champion.