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For years, cell phones have been off-limits to independent software developers and startups, at least in the United States. But that’s beginning to change, as subscribers gain access to free and paid software and services that let them do more with their phones.

A good example is Q121, a social networking and media-sharing service launched in June by the online marketing firm Traffix of Pearl River, NY. People who register with Q121 can upload their favorite songs, videos, and photos to the site, then send them to the cell phones of other registered users. It’s free, for now – yet Q121 wouldn’t exist if the big cellular carriers weren’t allowing it to sell premium content with the charges for it appearing directly on customers’ cellular bills. “Our interest in doing this really picked up last year, when the carriers opened up their walled gardens,” says Andrew Stollman, president of Traffix.

The paucity of third-party software and services for cell phones to date stems from the unique structure of the wireless industry in the United States. Unlike their European counterparts, U.S. carriers have long dictated which phones customers can use and what software can run on them. Moreover, competing wireless standards, such as CDMA, GSM, and iDEN, and competing phone operating systems, such as Java, Symbian, and Windows Mobile, have created a fragmented technological infrastructure with few economies of scale.

As a result, most of the software and content available to U.S. cellular subscribers has come directly from the carriers, who have determined not only what’s visible to users on their phones’ main menus, or “decks,” but also how consumer will pay for the content they choose, such as TV clips. This “walled garden” concept harkens back to the closed dial-up computer networks of yesteryear, such as AOL, CompuServe, and Prodigy.

Over the last year, though, Verizon, Sprint, Cingular, and other carriers have begun to make their decks – and, perhaps even more important, their billing systems – accessible to outside companies. The result: just as the explosion in online services began with the emergence of the nonproprietary World Wide Web in the mid-1990s, a new generation of startups is giving cellular subscribers more ways to use their phones’ computing capabilities.

And the timing couldn’t be better. The Internet is now overflowing with user-generated content – photos, videos, blogs, wikis, garage-band music. As it becomes easier to transmit this content over cellular networks, the phone – arguably the first social machine – is helping to make the “social computing” revolution mobile.

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