Verizon's scary designs to become the Microsoft of mobile

America's largest carrier wants to consolidate the smartphone market under its control -- and that's bad news for promising upstarts like Palm

When you're a dark horse smartphone vendor that's betting the farm on a cutting-edge developer platform, hiring one director of developer relations apparently isn't enough. Last week, Mozilla Labs alums Dion Almaer and Ben Galbraith announced that they would jointly assume the role at Palm -- not a moment too soon, it appears, because Palm WebOS developers must surely have questions. Chief among them: Why should developers keep writing apps for a smartphone platform that has just been blackballed by the largest mobile carrier in America?

Verizon Wireless was widely expected to be the second carrier to offer the well-received Palm Pre handset once Palm's exclusive deal with Sprint expired, but insiders say those hopes are now dashed. Low sales are at least partly to blame: According to reports, the Pre has yet to move 1 million units at Sprint since its launch in early June. More troubling for Palm, however, must be the rumors that Verizon ultimately chose to pass on the Pre because WebOS didn't jibe well with the carrier's own developer plans.

[ While Verizon tries to genericize mobile platforms, Apple may have handed over the mobile business market to the BlackBerry, suggests InfoWorld's Bill Snyder. ]

Palm's model for success is Apple. It's banking that WebOS will be compelling enough to keep customers buying Palm-branded handsets. But Verizon has little use for that; it would prefer a smartphone market that more closely resembles the mainstream PC market. In Verizon's vision of the future, handsets are commodities, applications are uniform across all devices, and customers have a single source for all their software. Yep, you guessed it: Verizon's model for success is Microsoft. And if Verizon can bring its vision to reality, it could change the face of mobility as we know it -- and leave players like Palm in the dust.

The Big Brother of wireless?

In a blog post last Friday, Palm's Galbraith wrote of what he saw as a revolution in hardware, with pocket-sized smartphones gradually replacing yesterday's desktop PCs. At the same time, he said, he was dismayed that not every vendor agrees with his ideal of an open developer platform.

"It seems that some view this revolution as a chance to seize power in downright Orwellian ways," Galbraith wrote, "by constraining what we as developers can say, dictating what kinds of apps we can create, controlling how we distribute our apps, and placing all kinds of limits on what we can do to our computing devices."

Where Verizon is concerned, put a check mark next to all of the above. The carrier is already well-known for disabling handset features that clash with its business model. More recently, it has been hard at work on a multipronged plan to consolidate control over its developer market, too.

Central to these efforts will be the VCast App Store, a unified e-commerce hub that will take the place of third-party download sites like the Palm App Catalog and the Android Market on Verizon's network. Instead of directing customers to different app stores depending on what brand of handset they own, Verizon plans to cut out the middlemen and offer a single source for third-party applications -- with the carrier earning a percentage on each sale, naturally.

Even more interesting, however, is Verizon's participation in the JIL (Joint Innovation Lab), a multinational consortium that aims to create a common framework allowing mobile applications to run on multiple operating systems. According to Verizon execs, the proliferation of mobile operating systems, with their various incompatible SDKs, has slowed the place of mobile app development. With the participation of the JIL, it hopes to see the ecosystem reduced to three or four major operating systems in the next two years.

Enter the Verizon platform

The thing is, Verizon's plan does make some sense. There really are too many mobile operating systems on the market now. Between BlackBerry, iPhone, Symbian, Windows Mobile, and now upstarts like WebOS and Android, the smartphone market resembles somewhat the 8-bit era of the 1980s, where developers needed to learn a whole new operating environment to support each new brand of PC. Verizon can help with that -- as long as we're comfortable with history repeating itself.

Verizon plans to consolidate the mobile market in the same way that Microsoft consolidated PCs. In Verizon's world, it won't matter whether you have a BlackBerry, a Palm Pre, or a handset from HTC. Customers will have access to the same games and applications no matter which platform they use, and they'll download them from the same source: Verizon. User experience will differ from device to device, sure. But as a developer, your focus won't be on the Palm experience or the BlackBerry experience; your target platform will be Verizon handsets.

Sound scary? It should. Just the thought of it makes me thankful I'm not a Verizon customer. But as long as U.S. mobile carriers have the final say over what handsets can be used on their networks and in what manner, this is the specter looming over us. That's why I'm glad to see that the FCC is investigating the practice of exclusive contracts between handset vendors and carriers. A mobile market where customers can use whatever handsets they choose and vote with their feet when their carrier works against their interests would be the best thing for customers and developers alike -- not to mention promising upstart platforms like Palm's.