Will Apple finish Steve Jobs’ telco revolution?

Like everyone else across the tech universe, I am saddened by the untimely passing of Apple chairman Steve Jobs. My concern for Apple is whether or not there is the brainpower, will and chutzpah in Cupertino to finish the revolution Jobs led with the iPhone — the complete destruction of the cellular telephone industry as we knew it.

While we all know the conception, building and launching of the iPhone — and perhaps even more importantly the AppStore — was a team effort at Apple, the complete and radical shift the iPhone and Apple’s open apps strategy brought forth was pure Jobs, a seismic business and lifestyle shift whose aftershocks are still knocking down walls. Witness Sprint’s reported recent capitulation, its decision to “bet the company” on a ginormous cash commitment to Apple — simply to get access to Steve’s wonderful toy.

If you can remember that far back, before the iPhone cellular carriers were in complete control of the on-phone experience — and your inability to remember anything innovative before the BlackBerry should be a sign that the folks who build the networks shouldn’t necessarily be in the business of determing what should run atop them. If you leave aside for a moment the allure of the spectacular device, the bigger power shift that Jobs and Apple brought with the iPhone was the democratization of the mobile app, the idea that anyone could try to build something fun or useful and that there would be a place to give it a try without having to convince a bunch of suits in some telecom-company conference room beforehand.

That’s the revolution that needs to continue, and it’s sad that Jobs passed away before he could take the journey to its next logical step, by either buying or building a new network for Apple devices to run on. Watching the big cellular carriers trying to justify their existence in an iPhone world is kind of like watching dinosaurs roam the tar pits as the meteors crash down — they are still big enough to eat most of the other creatures and you need to stay out of their way so they don’t crush you, but soon their days will end.

The idea that carriers can dictate what happens on their phones and networks is already a dead one thanks to the iPhone and siblings like Android. But what’s needed is someone (or some company) with the courage and conviction of Jobs to finish the job and build something new that provides our world with a network as wonderful and powerful as the devices we already have. And simple pricing plans that encourage more communication and collaboration, not less. Right now the big-telco model — which uses its cash to curry political favor to help it stomp out innovation by using any tactic possible to crush competitors (instead of just beating them with a better product) — is moving us backwards in time to data plans that force users to worry about how many megabits they are downloading. That’s the old, busted model. What we need is the new hotness.

I get it that networks are expensive to build and deploy, but my gut tells me that the hardworking folks at the Verizons and AT&Ts of the world are not going to take risks and innovate to build the networks we need going forward. They are going to keep doing the same things they’ve been doing and protect their current income streams for as long as they can. They are GM and Chrysler, building SUVs while the world runs out of oil. The iPhone was the cellular industry’s Prius, a radical move from left field that in a few short years has spawned massive innovation and created thousands of new jobs. What’s needed is another pirate to keep moving Jobs’ ship forward, to loot the billions locked up in the structure of the old cell-company marketplace. We need a new boss, not the same as the old boss. And the one who would have been perfect, is now gone. For our sake, I hope the revolution he started doesn’t die with him.

About Paul Kapustka

Paul Kapustka is a longtime journalist who has spent more than two decades covering the information technology business, Paul most recently has been focusing on mobility and how it has changed the computing and collaborative landscape. His newest project outside Mobile Enterprise 360 is a research and analysis operation called WiFi Journal. He is also editor in chief of Mobile Sports Report, which covers the intersection of mobile technology and sports business. Paul is also the founder of Sidecut Reports, a research firm that covered the emergence of 4G technology in the cellular marketplace.