Carriers: Bring on the Mobile OS Wars

AT&T (s t) CEO of Mobility and Consumer Markets Ralph de la Vega said today that there’s room at the smartphone table for Microsoft’s (s msft) Windows Phone 7.

De la Vega countered comments from Andy Rubin, Google’s (s goog) VP of engineering, who said last week that the world doesn’t need another smartphone platform.

“If you bring something innovative to market, people will respond,” said de la Vega in a quick interview today about Windows Phone 7. “I think it’s going to do very well.”

What the WP7 launch illustrates is how carriers like AT&T are embracing the competition in the smartphone category instead of pleading for less of it. In the past, operators have looked to thin the OS herd in order to minimize the number of platforms they support and also lessen the workload for software developers.

AT&T appears happy with the jockeying for position among myriad OSes, and now supports every major platform in the U.S. including RIM (s rimm), iOS (s aapl), Android and webOS (s hpq). AT&T is one of two launch partners for Windows Phone 7 and will carry three phones on Nov. 8 at the launch. Why the enthusiasm?

While the market will probably settle out eventually, it’s hard to know what platforms will make the cut, so it makes sense to be open and give consumers a wide array of choices. More importantly, the carriers are seeing that this competition can be good for them, helping them reassert their power, which has been checked by the rise of the iPhone (s aapl) and app marketplaces.

By welcoming new smartphone platforms, especially from struggling competitors eager for a comeback, a carrier like AT&T can push to get good placement for its own apps. Providing apps and valuable services are one way for the operators to avoid being dumb pipes, something they worry about a lot. It also allows them to further assert their branding on phones and keep people from thinking of these as devices provided by manufacturers, not operators.

[inline-pro-content]If you look at AT&T’s Windows Phone 7 devices, the carrier will not only have its U-Verse Mobile app featured prominently, but it will have five apps listed on the phone, which are conveniently located at the top of the app list because the list is organized by alphabet.

Many tech pundits are unhappy with what they call carrier “crapware” and yet, with the smartphone makers looking to secure distribution, it’s hard for any manufacturer or OS maker to say no to the operators. Even Google, which originally seemed to champion unlocked hardware like the Nexus One which would limit the influence of carriers, is now very much tied to the carriers for its success. Having yet another competitor in the AT&T fold makes it even harder for smartphone manufacturers to sidestep those apps.

Having a lot of hardware from different smartphone platforms also has to help carriers in haggling over prices with manufacturers; a small benefit, perhaps, but one nonetheless. De la Vega himself said Windows Phone 7 launch highlights how competitive the market has become.

I think the carriers would still like to see fewer operating systems in the end for simplicity’s sake, and we’ll likely get it. In the near term, some like AT&T seem to be making the most of the competition.

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