Developers Weigh In on WAC
Outside of the significant issue of getting 27 wireless operators and handset vendors to agree on anything, WAC’s biggest challenge will come in attracting developers away from Apple Inc. (Nasdaq: AAPL) and Google (Nasdaq: GOOG)’s Android -- to develop for their own cross-carrier platform. The operators are promoting their scale and reach, but developers are adopting a “we’ll believe it when we see it” attitude.
Flurry Inc. powers an analytics engine that gives developers insights into app usage on different devices; it is used by many developers to determine where to spend their time and money. So it is that marketing VP Peter Farago has learned a thing or two about what developers want. For most, it is to make the most money at the lowest cost.
“Can these operators facilitate a real marketplace that gives developers enough of an incentive to build for them?” he asks. “Conceptually, it’s great. Practically, it sounds difficult.”
WAC is promising to enable this for developers by not reinventing the wheel. Tim Raby, managing director of Open Mobile Terminal Platform Ltd. (OMTP) and acting CEO of WAC, stresses that the non-profit is not intended to be a standards organization, so it will focus on taking industry-standard technologies from the Web and porting them to the mobile phone.
Web vs. native apps
But is that a good thing? The nature of Web technologies is that the functions stay one level above the operating system. They can’t achieve the rich, highly integrated experience that native apps can... yet. Many believe that mobile apps are moving towards being predominantly browser-based; they just aren’t there yet.
“Native apps are going to dominate until the day you can open up a mobile browser and instantly open a Website,” says Henry Balanon, founder and lead developer of iPhone app company Bickbot.com. “The developer toolkits for native apps are also more superior at this point. I think, in a few years, mobile Web will dominate since it will be build once, run in any browser. We're just not at this point yet.”
To offset the generic Web run-time environment, Reinhard Kreft, Vodafone Group plc (NYSE: VOD)'s head of standardization and industry engagement, says WAC will provide a secure, consistent way to expose operators’ network and device APIs. He believes this will be huge for developers.
API examples Kreft cites include the accelerometer, so developers can know when the device is turned to landscape mode; identity and personal identification data on subscribers; messaging; billing; location of the user and other people in his or her network; data connection profiles of the connection speed that user has; and click-to-call services.
Trip Hawkins, CEO of Digital Chocolate, says that if WAC becomes real, his mobile gaming company will absolutely support it. Digital Chocolate already does business with many partners of the alliance, but its biggest mobile business is on the iPhone and on the Web. Hawkins says the Web protocols are plenty appealing for developers.
"In my view," Hawkins says, "the trend these days is towards simplicity and convenience, and the public is increasingly accustomed to how the Web works, and expects access to it from a variety of devices, platforms, and networks."
For an app like RunKeeper, which relies on the phone’s GPS to track a runner’s location and distance, access to carrier APIs is appealing. But co-founder and COO Michael Sheeley says that scrapping its iPhone and Android code to build for any new platform isn't an easy task. (See App Focus: Couch Potatoes' Least Favorite App .)
RunKeeper's newly launched Android app took nearly seven months of development. A lengthy development process coupled with an approval process that requires developers to jump through hoops (something carriers have traditionally been known to do) will be enough of a reason to bypass the operators all together.
That is, unless the revenue sharing model is an offer developers can't refuse. Hawkins says the best revenue-sharing model is one in which the highest possible percent of app revenue goes back to the developers, because it is “an enabler that drives consumer interest in devices, networks, and the willingness to pay increasing fees for data services.” Admitting that it sounds self-serving, he says that a 90 to 100 percent revenue share to the developer, similar to what WAC member NTT DoCoMo Inc. (NYSE: DCM) offers, is the smartest move.
That’s not likely, however, according to Flurry's Farago, who anticipates the WAC will most likely mirror Apple’s 70/30 split. He sees the revenue model being one in which there’s an overarching guideline for charging, but each WAC member is able to set its own pricing structure -- a federal-versus-state kind of setup, meaning that fragmentation might not be as minimal as the operators suggest.
“Because of the natural competitive tension that will never go away, the desire to be better and different than your competitors, I don’t know if that will allow them to completely coordinate and collaborate in the way that they want to,” Farago says.
This is, of course, only speculation. There are more questions about WAC than there are answers right now, and it’s too early for developers to be anything but cautiously optimistic. Executives from two operator members, Deutsche Telekom AG (NYSE: DT) and Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE: VZ), have admitted to Light Reading Mobile that coordinating efforts among so many members will neither be an easy nor a short process.
WAC has promised more information, including on the developer processes, revenue split, and use of in-app ads, in July.
— Sarah Reedy, Senior Reporter, Light Reading Mobile