From its conception, WiMAX has been engineered to be an open platform for mobile broadband Internet. When you talk to any of the executives and business professionals from the big vendors in the WiMAX ecosystem, they all sing a similar tune about open standards, open access, and device agnosticism. If all of these folks got together, held hands, and sang Kumbaya at the next WiMAX World conference, it wouldn't surprise me.
However, the white knight of idealism rarely lasts long in the world of business and technology. It's usually quickly replaced by the gremlins of reality and greed. That's why I continue to be surprised by the idealistic rhetoric and plans that I've heard from Sprint about its Xohm WiMAX deployment in the United States this year.
The latest example of this is Sprint's plans to make Xohm (pronounced zome) an open platform. Later this year, Sprint will release open APIs and a software development kit (SDK) so that hardware and software makers can develop solutions to take advantage of Sprint's mobile WiMAX network. Both Barry West, Sprint's CTO, and Atish Gude, the senior vice president of Xohm operations, have unequivocally confirmed these plans.
"We're going to be open on devices and open on applications," said Gude. "We're here to serve the Internet. Our foremost priority is providing really good access... This is the open Internet. We're not going to block anybody."
Gude stated that Sprint plans to release the SDK and open APIs by the end of the year. Some examples of this code include location services (for maps and local information), QoS (which game developers and VoIP providers could jump on), identity management, and device management.
"We're trying to look at the model of where the Internet, applications, and devices are going," he said. By doing open APIs and an SDK for WiMAX, the idea is to allow applications to become smarter in knowing what device you're on, where you are, whether you're stationary or moving, etc. Of course, that naturally sends up privacy red flags.
Gude promised, "We will absolutely have the highest level of privacy, and we will let customers control when to expose [their data]."
Additionally, for higher level services, Xohm partners might pay a fee to get access to even more code that's not part of the open API and SDK . West couched this as Sprint sharing its full "network OS" with its partners.
Sprint has already lined up a broad ecosystem of WiMAX partners (see graphic below), including over 20 chipset manufacturers and big names like Intel, Motorola, Samsung, Nokia, Alcatel-Lucent, and Google.
"This level of diversity [of partners] is far exceeding the 3G world," said Gude. "We're starting to light the fire with a much broader ecosystem than 3G... In the 3G world, the carrier decided who was the winner and loser [in devices]." With WiMAX, Sprint wants to let the market decide.
"Picking devices is not our business. We will not brand them 'Xohm.' We might say 'Xohm Inside,'" Gude said.
This approach runs counter to what the U.S. wireless carriers — including Sprint — have traditionally done. They have closely tied the service to their own approved and selected devices and have tried to make more money by offering extra services such as messaging and video (and have often tried to block third parties who tried to offer services and applications). By doing this, the network carriers have tried to avoid being a "dumb pipe" that just delivers data while others make money on the services that run through that pipe.
However, Gude candidly remarked, "I have no problem being a 'dumb pipe' if we make a lot of money."
Both West and Gude believe that by becoming a wireless broadband provider who creates an open ecosystem, Sprint can flourish as a wireless ISP. Gude compared this to when the electric companies standardized the outlet. Once they standardized it, demand for electricity grew. Sprint is betting that by building a mobile broadband network on open standards, demand will grow for broadband access in more places and to many more devices (for example, cars, traffic cameras, billboards, toys, board games, and more).
Sprint senior PR manager John Polivka confirmed that Xohm is still on track for a second quarter launch of its first two big WiMAX networks covering the Chicago area and the Washington D.C. area.
How do you think Sprint's open WiMAX platform will affect the U.S. wireless market? Join the discussion.
Jason Hiner is Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He writes about the people, products, and ideas changing how we live and work in the 21st century. He's co-author of the book, Follow the Geeks.