AOL Replies

America Online takes strong issue with my Tuesday column, in which I called the company hypocritical for changing its tune on open access in the cable-data market. I’d cited two highly reputable publications — reports in the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal (paid registration required for this story).

Both got it wrong, and so did I, writes company spokeswoman Kathy Bushkin:

I’m sorry you didn’t talk to anyone at AOL about our position on open access before writing about it in your recent column.

If you had, we could have made clear that AOL is as strongly committed to open access today as we were the day before we announced our merger with Time Warner. In fact, we made it a key point in the announcement of the merger that there would be consumer choice among ISPs on AOL Time Warner cable systems.

We are now actively engaged in developing a plan to make open access a reality in the marketplace and, as a result, the need for legislation is now less urgent so we aren’t committing the resources to it as we were before. As we bring these two companies together, we are confident that AOL Time Warner will accelerate the delivery of choice, competition and innovation to cable consumers nationwide.

I know what AOL keeps saying, and I hope it’s true. But calling the lobbyists off the open-access cause does raise questions, especially given AOL’s history.

Back in 1995, just before the launch of Windows 95, AOL was leading a charge before the Justice Department to get an antitrust investigation of the Microsoft Network, a competing online service that would have a direct link from the Windows desktop. Microsoft shouldn’t favor itself, given its dominance of the desktop, AOL correctly said.

But when AOL got favored Windows placement, in return for promoting and adopting Microsoft’s Web browser, AOL’s fervent calls for intervention stopped. Other online services and Internet providers were left to fend for themselves.

AOL says it’ll voluntarily provide open access to other online providers, even though that’s not in its own best interest. I will believe this when it actually happens.

Meanwhile, I’ll keep in mind another kind of company that has been claiming to provide similar open access to competitiors — the local phone monopolies. They’ve talked a great game but have done little but put obstacles in the way of the companies that want to compete for local service and data connections.

If AOL honors its promises I’ll be first to praise it. As ifs go, this is a biggie.

Symbian Courts Developers

Symbian books: At the Symbian Developers Conference: a stack of books on Symbian applications development.

Symbian is a partnership of wireless communications giants Ericsson, Matsushita, Motorola and Nokia plus Psion, a company best known for its handheld computers. The company was set up to create an operating-system and development standard for smart mobile devices. In a field where giants like Microsoft want to dominate, and where upstarts like Palm Computing want to have a major role, Symbian is a pre-emptive strike in a nascent market.

As I mentioned yesterday, Symbian is hosting a developers conference in Santa Clara this week. Some 700 software developers have registered, the company says.

IBM is one of several major companies to make product and/or service announcements at the conference. IBM plans to work with Symbian to create new kinds of wireless applications for use in large enterprises.

I stopped by the convention center this morning to visit with Colly Myers, Symbian’s chief executive. He was upbeat, naturally, about the platform and its prospects.

Myers dismissed industry scuttlebutt about problems inside the partnership, including the impact widely publicized partnerships between Ericsson and Microsoft, which wants to establish Windows CE as the dominant mobile operating system, and between Motorola and Palm. None of those have any real impact on Symbian, he said, because the phone companies still plan to use Symbian’s EPOC operating system as the foundation of their advanced devices.

Symbian’s goal is to have a healthy share — maybe 15 to 20 percent — of the “top end of the handset market,” Myers said, not to control the whole thing. That’s still a huge potential market, he notes.

Developers are the key to many kinds of computing platforms. They create the applications and add-ons that attract customers. So the care and feeding of developers is essential. No one does it better than Microsoft, and smart platform companies are copying some of Microsoft’s tactics in this area, including Symbian, to some degree.

The picture at the top of this commentary shows a new book aimed at Symbian software developers. It’s a much-needed volume, complementing the Software Development Kits available for download at Symbian’s Web site. Myers says some 24,000 people have signed up on the site as potential developers. That sounds like a lot, but it’s utterly dwarfed by the legions who are writing applications for Windows and Java.

Java, actually, is part of the Symbian play, because Java is built onto EPOC. Myers says people who use Java to write for other platforms will be able to leverage their work on the Symbian platform.

I’m working on a column about development platforms, by the way. If you’re a developer, I’d like to hear what you want from platform companies. .

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