AlcaLu Buys Some API Smarts

Ever keen to further promote the Applications Enablement strategy it first outlined in late 2009, Alcatel-Lucent (NYSE: ALU) has acquired, for an undisclosed sum, one of the key online meeting points for the world's Web 2.0 applications developers. (See AlcaLu Shows Off Its Apps Abs.)

Convinced it can be one of the power brokers that brings the disparate worlds of communications service providers and Web developers together, Alcatel-Lucent has acquired ProgrammableWeb, an open, online repository of Web application programmable interfaces (APIs) used by developers (about 20,000 registered, currently) to create new widgets and services for the Web and a broad range of connected devices.

Basically, if you're a developer and you want to write an application for Skype Ltd. or Twitter Inc. , or any number of online resources from multiple industry verticals, you can get the code you need from ProgrammableWeb's API directory, which currently holds about 2,000 APIs. It's that simple.

What's also simple is Alcatel-Lucent's thinking behind this move. The giant vendor wants to be the bridge between carriers and developers, and play an active role in enabling service providers to source and deliver more applications to their customers, as well as encourage the developer community to write more code that can work across communications networks.

ProgrammableWeb is already part of the way there, but it's clear that, so far, there is little commitment from the service provider side of the fence.

A quick glance at the list of telecom service providers making their telephony APIs available at ProgrammableWeb for developers to use shows there are just three carriers contributing their code: BT Group plc (NYSE: BT; London: BTA), for its Web21C comms services; Deutsche Telekom AG (NYSE: DT), for its Voice Call network connection service; and Orange (NYSE: FTE)/Orange, for a broad range of voicemail, conferencing, location tracking, and contacts applications.

But those operators are the exceptions. As Heavy Reading chief analyst Graham Finnie pointed out earlier this year, the level of activity around communications-related APIs, and the lack of involvement of the service provider community in general, shows just how far behind the curve the telcos are in terms of open Web application developments. (See Telcos' App Problem.)

Alcatel-Lucent, though, believes it can encourage more operators to get on board, by making it easier for the carriers with which it engages as part of its Applications Enablement program to automatically make their APIs appear to the developer community on the ProgrammableWeb site, as well as making carriers generally aware of the potential benefits of going down such a route.

For the developers, AlcaLu is looking, not only to provide code writers with a broader set of partners that can promote their applications to end users, but to provide them with additional tools, such as a dashboard that helps them to track whether their applications are being used and generating service provider revenues and developer royalties.

But for that to work, there needs to be a willingness on both sides of the fence -- the carriers and developers -- to work together and see each other as useful, lucrative partners.

The president of AlcaLu's global developer strategy, Laura Merling, a former independent consultant who joined the vendor six months ago, believes there's growing interest from the service provider side. "We're increasingly being approached by carriers looking for help to develop their applications development strategies, and they're starting to understand the need for an ecosystem. They know they want to expose their APIs to the developers, and they're looking for advice."

Part of AlcaLu's mission, then, is to persuade the developer community that a network is a suitable and worthwhile platform for their applications, something that the vendor has been trying to achieve by promoting "packaged API bundles" that aim to make the apps development process quicker and easier. "So far, the power play has been around the device as the applications platform," notes Merling. (See AlcaLu Touts Bundled APIs and AlcaLu Bundles Mobile APIs.)

Just as big a task, though, is to get the carriers on board. She admits it's still a relatively small number of operators that are being proactive at present, but there are pockets of interest in particular markets, such as France, the UK., and across Asia/Pacific in general, where the carriers, collectively, are looking to move the market forward.

Are these same carriers also engaged with the GSM Association (GSMA) 's "OneAPI" efforts to create a set of specifications for open APIs? (See Mobile Operators Strike Back on Apps .)

Absolutely, says Merling: The carriers want Alcatel-Lucent to support the GSMA's developments. But she says the carriers want things to move faster, and they're looking beyond just the mobile domain -- the set-top box and the DVR are also prime end-user devices that are key to operator applications development strategies.

Buying ProgrammableWeb isn't the only way AlcaLu is bringing carriers and developers together. Its Open API service, launched last year with Sprint Corp. (NYSE: S) as the initial carrier partner, involves Alcatel-Lucent acting as the direct mediation platform between the two parties. (See AlcaLu Turns Apps Broker.)

So how's that going? Merling says another US Tier 1 operator is trialing the service, another is showing interest, and a number of Tier 2 carriers are close to signing up. The service is set to be launched in Europe later this year.

— Ray Le Maistre, International Managing Editor, Light Reading

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