BARCELONA, Spain--iPhone maker Apple isn't at GSMA Mobile World Congress 2009 along with the rest of the mobile phone industry, but the company's growing success is definitely top of mind for key executives in the mobile market.
The iPhone and Apple's successful App Store got more than a passing mention on Tuesday during a panel moderated by The Wall Street Journal technology columnist Walt Mossberg.
The panel which included three of the most powerful CEOs in the mobile industry--Ralph de la Vega, CEO of AT&T Mobility, the second largest mobile operator in the U.S.; Olli-Pekka Kallasvu, CEO of Nokia, the world's largest handset maker, and Steve Ballmer, CEO of Microsoft, the worldwide software leader--centered on the need for more openness to spur successful innovation in the mobile market.
But the discussion quickly devolved into the need for openness, despite the growing success of Apple, considered the most closed player in the industry.
Each executive had his own idea of what openness means and how if Apple adopted its own vision of openness it could be more successful. De la Vega and Kallasvu said fewer operating systems are needed so that developers can create applications that run on more devices.
"Customers want us to simplify," de la Vega said. "Our corporate customers, especially, want a smaller set of operating systems to manage."
De la Vega, whose company is the exclusive operator offering the iPhone in the U.S., even said that more openness could benefit Apple.
"The iPhone is a great success, but it would be even better if the applications were interoperable," he said.
Kallasvu agreed. And he used Apple and its "closed" ecosystem as an example of what could limit innovation in the mobile market in the future. He said Apple's vertically integrated model, where its hardware and software are tightly controlled by the company, further fragmented the market. And he added that what is truly needed is more openness in developing applications.
Ballmer argued that device openness was important to give customers more choices. And he pointed to the number of choices that Windows Mobile customers have when choosing a device.
"I agree that no single company can create all the hardware and software," he said. "Openness is central because it's the foundation of choice."
Even though each of these executives argued for openness and took jabs at Apple for its lack of openness, Mossberg pointed to the company's growing success in the market. The iPhone, which was launched a year and a half ago, has seen tremendous growth in terms of shipments. And so has its newly launched application store. Apple said last month that there are a total of 15,000 applications available through the App Store. And the number of downloads has hit more than 500 million in just over six months.
All the talk of Apple and its success annoyed at least one European audience member who asked Mossberg and the other panelists why they were so worried about what Apple was doing when Apple's total worldwide market share is still miniscule.
De la Vega answered with a response that seems to sum up how the industry views Apple: "Because the other 99.5 percent of the industry is trying to copy the iPhone."
Indeed, they are. Even two of the companies on the panel have copied aspects of Apple's playbook. Nokia recently introduced its first touchscreen phone to rival the iPhone, the N97, in December. And Microsoft's new Windows Mobile 6.5 allows touchscreen navigation that looks eerily similar to the iPhone's software. What's more, Microsoft and Nokia clearly think that Apple is on to something with its App Store, since each company announced its own version of an application marketplace here this week.