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An ownership society: Google’s Android presents new questions about who owns the wireless consumer

Is the Google Android operating system a game changer? The answer to that question may determine the answer to one of wireless’s biggest questions: Who owns the customer?
From the time the first cellphone call was made, wireless carriers have had the front-line relationship with the customer through billing, contractual obligations and – up until four years ago – through the phone number. It was only in 2004 that the government mandated local number portability, giving unhappy subscribers the ability to leave the relationship without sacrificing their phone numbers. But even though a subscriber could switch service providers, the new provider still was the primary “owner” of that customer.
Mobile device manufacturers have forged their own relationships with subscribers, but not with significant success (in the United States anyway) until Apple Inc. introduced the iPhone last year. The most recent numbers from AT&T Mobility showed that 40% of new iPhone users came from outside AT&T’s established customer base.
But if customers chose the iPhone based on its iconic design, they’ll stay based on its App Store. Indeed, Apple CEO Steve Jobs basically attributed the iPhone’s success to the software, not the device itself: “As software becomes dominant, a hundred variations (of devices) presented to an application developer isn’t very enticing. We’re extremely comfortable with our software platform strategy and (the iPhone) is a software platform.”
To date, 200 million downloads from the App Store back up that argument.
But the Apple OS, like Research In Motion’s BlackBerry OS, is a closed platform. The device and OS are linked by default.
Android will not be loyal to one manufacturer or one wireless provider. Will device manufacturers and service providers highlight the device – or the really cool things you can do with it?
Can an operating system own the customer? Steve Jobs would answer yes. It remains to be seen whether Android will prove the rule or the exception.

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