On Nov. 5, Google (GOOG) unveiled what many in the phone business had long awaited. CEO Eric Schmidt explained how the search giant was ready to create new software for mobile phones that would shake up the telecom status quo. A Google-led "Open Handset Alliance" would provide consumers an alternative to the big cellular carriers and give them new choices among mobile phones and the types of nifty services that run on them, from e-mail to Google Maps.
Google's brain trust was again trying to change the rules of the game. Behind the scenes, they owe a sizable debt to a man nearly unknown outside the geeky confines of cyberlaw. He is Tim Wu, a Columbia Law School professor who provided the intellectual framework that inspired Google's mobile phone strategy. One of the school's edgier profs, Wu attends the artfest Burning Man, and admits to having hacked his iPhone to make it work on the T-Mobile (DT) network.
Now, Wu's offbeat ideas are entering the mainstream. In February, he published a paper in the International Journal of Communication proposing a radical new vision of freedom for the U.S. wireless industry. He argued that the Federal Communications Commission should mandate that providers allow consumers to use any cell phone with any wireless operator, and install any programs they want on their phones as long as they were not illegal or harmful. "It would make a huge difference in the wireless industry," says Wu. "It will blow open the wireless market."
The paper spread like juicy gossip around the Googleplex. Wu's vision resonated because Google had become frustrated with phone companies that were blocking some Google applications from being used on phones attached to their networks. Like Wu, Google believes an alliance based on openness will trigger a new wave of innovation. "Tim helped us catalyze a strategy," says Chris Sacca, head of special initiatives at Google. "He's a singular force in this space. You're just seeing the start of what he's going to accomplish."
Wu, 35, has emerged this year as a key influencer in telecom. He rose to prominence by popularizing "Net neutrality," the notion that network service providers should not be allowed to deny people access to certain Web sites or prioritize certain content. Telecom carriers believe their multibillion-dollar investments give them the right to decide what is transmitted on their networks. "The highly competitive wireless industry is demonstrating that neither legislation nor regulation is required to produce innovation," says Verizon Wireless spokesman Jeffrey Nelson. While Sprint Nextel (S) and T-Mobile have joined the Google alliance, AT&T (T) and Verizon, the two largest U.S. wireless carriers, have not. Wu argues that wireless networks are like public utilities, and should be kept free from corporate interference. "They need to carry content without discrimination," he says.
Wu has had a surprisingly large influence on telecom policy on Capitol Hill. In 2006, he was invited by the FCC to help draft the first-ever Net neutrality rules that were attached to the merger of AT&T and BellSouth. They required the company for 30 months to allow consumers to access any content or service of their choice, while barring AT&T from providing faster service to any content or service provider. Over the summer, the FCC adopted two of Wu's proposals for an upcoming auction of wireless airwaves. The rules require network operators to support any device or application on the spectrum they buy. Now, Wu is pressing for network neutrality throughout wireless computing.
Wu's work exploring the nexus of communications and the law has made him the field's most important new voice. Lawrence Lessig, a Stanford University law professor who has been the leader in arguing for reduced restrictions on what can go up on the Internet, predicts that Wu will become even more influential than he himself has been: "The second generation always has a bigger impact than the first."
At Columbia, Wu brings a quirky sensibility to the job. On a recent afternoon, he strolled into the classroom with a furry mouse costume. Wu brought the prop as a visual aid to discuss copyright law. He slipped on a pair of mittens and asked the class: "Do I have copyright protection?" A few students correctly said no. Then Wu put on a giant mouse mask and waved his hands in the air like some surreal Disneyland character. "Do I have copyright protection now?" he asked. The class erupted into laughter. Wu's point was that because costumes are useful articles, not works of art, they do not merit copyright protection.
Born to a Taiwanese father and British mother, Wu was taught to think unconventionally. His hippie parents met in grad school at the University of Toronto in the 1960s. His parents, both immunologists, sent him and his younger brother to alternative schools that emphasized creativity. After Wu's father died, in 1980, his mother bought him and his brother an Apple II computer with some of the insurance money. Thus began his fascination with computers.
Initially, Wu studied biochemistry at McGill University. But he was a disaster in the lab. Once, he accidentally contaminated it with radioactive material. "It was like Silkwood," he quips.
After college, Wu decided to apply to law school on a whim. At Harvard, he merely drifted through his classes until he took a course on technology and the law with Lessig, who was teaching there at the time. "That's when I first started thinking of becoming a law professor," says Wu. Armed with a strong recommendation from Lessig, Wu landed a plum clerkship with Federal Appeals Court Judge Richard Posner and later clerked for Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer.
Yet, instead of heading for academia or a white-shoe firm, Wu moved to Silicon Valley in 2000 and took a marketing job with a startup that made communications gear. He wanted to get inside the technology world. But Wu soon became disillusioned with the business. "Most of our products were designed to control the Internet and extract revenue," he says. "My stomach wasn't in it."
In 2002, he landed a job teaching law at the University of Virginia. After Lessig suggested he work on a paper related to corporate control of the Internet, Wu explored the field. Thanks to his stint in the Valley, Wu understood how computer networks operated. He poured that knowledge into a paper exposing many of the restrictions that broadband communications providers imposed on their customers, such as constraints on bandwidth usage or bans on setting up wireless networks.
In 2003, Wu presented the paper. It fell flat. A year later, though, his message was heard—and amplified—when former FCC Chairman Michael Powell cited his Net neutrality work in a speech. "That's when things took off," says Wu.
Ante is Computer Editor for BusinessWeek .