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The fast and the fragmented

imageThe spotlight shone on the three largest US carriers who will drive 4G adoption in the U.S. as executives spoke at conferences held by their partners and vendors this week¬† First, there were comments by AT&T’s Roger Smith at a Symbian conference¬† that AT&T would seek to standardize on one smartphone operating system. Many observers chortled that it was at best uncharacteristic for the operator that has pursued a handset strategy of broad selection and exclusives to do so, or that it was even unrealistic to think it could.

However, the key phrase was “AT&T-branded,” and subsequent dialog implied that this this would include handsets such as, say, the AT&T Tilt, but not devices that included brands such as Nokia and Samsung. In my further discussion with AT&T, they’ve backed off even this position, which seems to have been more of a wistful musing stemming from the frustration of developer fragmentation and support headaches.

Verizon, of course, has also felt that pain, and is seeking to offload some of that support burden with its open development initiative while expanding its handset choice via LTE. At a Cisco conference, CTO Dick Lynch said that it would have LTE “in service somewhere.. probably” at this time next year. That sounds a lot like operator-speak for a trial. Even so, if Verizon can get to mass deployment by the middle of 2011, it would mitigate the time-to-market advantage of Sprint and Clearwire. Lynch also made the bolder prediction that “broadband capabilities will be found in virtually every electronics product out there.” That’s rich fodder for another discussion.

And speaking of Sprint and operating systems, Google’s Rich Miner is slated to speak at Sprint’s developer conference hot off the momentum of attracting 14 new members to the Open Handset Alliance, including Sony Ericsson, which has dipped its toe deeper into the U.S. smartphone market with the XPERIA X1. Sprint Nextel, which has been supporting three network deployments (WiiMAX, CDMA and iDEN) and a variety of business models (Sprint post-paid, Boost pre-paid, and aggressive MVNO leasing in their brief heyday), has he most complex business among the four major carriers.

While the Open Handset Alliance is trying to mitigate Android’s fragmentation within its own ecosystem, the bottom line is that it’s impossible to embrace openness without additional complexity as operators must let different ecosystems compete. This is particularly true when, as Lynch said at the Cisco event, carriers are trying to move away from bundling the phone and service to where consumers — advanced ones for the near-term — will mix and match devices and data and the business looks progressively even less like the cable industry. As consumer choice expands, carriers will need to move toward more of a partnership support model as more traffic will be coming from devices outside of their handset portfolio. Take, for example, the early example of the Amazon Kindle. Consumers don’t call Sprint if they have a problem with it.

In a saturated market like the U.S.,and faced with the Internet chameleon, carriers have no choice but to diversify. By and large, only humans have a need for voice communications on a wireless network. But while Lynch’s prediction of universal broadband enablement may lie far in the future, devices — and the ways in which consumer use them — have nearly infinite usage permutations.