Vodafone Leads Open Global App-Store Push

What would you think if we told you that five of the world's largest communications service providers (CSPs) are working together to enable their mobile customers to buy and download applications from each other's app stores?

Think about how big an idea that is: Five wireless giants creating, in essence, one global store for mobile applications. The idea is only as big as the names supporting it, as Light Reading has learned that the CSPs involved are AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T), Deutsche Telekom AG (NYSE: DT), Vodafone Group plc (NYSE: VOD), Verizon Wireless and Telefónica SA (NYSE: TEF).

Could a cabal of telcom operators, sick of chasing Apple Inc. (Nasdaq: AAPL) and Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) in the applications market, finally start working together and act like the Internet companies they aspire to be?

Well, we'll see in September, when this joint, open apps effort is set to launch in beta format.

Until then, it helps to know who is behind this idea: He's an engineer who sees CSP app stores working together in a way that mirrors the Web itself.

Michel Burger, head of architecture at Vodafone's Technology Strategy and Products Group, has for years preached the idea of exposing the network application programming interfaces (APIs) at the right time and in the right context to enable carriers to build better network services.

When he was CTO at Microsoft Corp. (Nasdaq: MSFT)'s Communications Sector, Burger talked a lot about how creating Web services was "very anti-cultural" to telcos. His point was that the telco way is to solve every imaginable problem before rolling out a service -- and that tendency had them sitting on the sidelines while other firms were creating Web mash-ups and getting hundreds of millions of users for new Web services. (See Carriers: Be Brave, or Die.)

Having now worked at a CSP for several years, Burger is spotting areas where CSPs can be comfortable working together on behalf of their customers without putting much data, time, and money at risk. At the TM Forum 's Management World last week, Burger told Light Reading about his latest project, which aims to do for mobile operator app stores what URL redirects do on the public Internet.

API redirect
On the Web, URL redirects help, for example, a website such as Light Reading to share a video from a host like YouTube Inc. without causing the viewer to do anything at all. Light Reading benefits from the content, while YouTube benefits from the exposure to a targeted audience. Both Light Reading and YouTube could potentially monetize the attention they get by selling ads related to the content. Thanks to Web APIs, we have an open architecture for sharing and (maybe) monetizing content and Light Reading has never had to pick up the phone and call YouTube for anything, or vice versa.

Burger says carrier app stores should do be able to do something similar with very little friction. When, for example, a Vodafone user attempts to download an application from AT&T, an app API redirect should identify the customer to AT&T as a Vodafone customer, allowing AT&T to deliver the application, and leave Vodafone to settle any charges with its customer via their existing billing relationship.

Such a system keep would AT&T from turning away a potential app customer or losing more momentum in the space to, for example, Apple's iTunes store, the largest app store on Earth. It would also open up a wider world of applications to the customers of any of the five service providers currently involved in the development. Once the service reaches beta stage in September, an AT&T customer, for instance, should be able to easily download and purchase apps from five stores, not just one.

Crucially, this would also mean that developers would have to write an app just once to make it available to a global audience of hundreds of millions of potential users, rather than having to tweak an app multiple times to meet the specifications of the different mobile operator app stores and their supporting back office software systems. That can only be a scenario that would encourage greater engagement between developers and the participating CSPs.

Remarkable, too, is that this is all happening without a third party's guiding hand. The service providers are working directly together with no industry associations or trade groups pushing them into standards meetings. And no device or mobile OS is dictating the terms here. "The Web has won again," said Burger, when explaining the concept to Light Reading's editors.

Why it hasn't happened yet
The idea to get all telcos to collectively share in the apps ecosystem isn't new, but different efforts to share APIs have found little success to date. Even wholesale, white-label app stores by vendors haven't caught on to the degree that consumers have noticed (or cared).

"BlueVia is the most eye-catching and extensive telco developer platform in the market at the moment. But even it is battling to attract developers who want to be able to write their apps once and run them on multiple operator networks, not solely on Telefónica's, however large its subscriber base," says Caroline Chappell, senior analyst at Heavy Reading, who also met with Burger at Management World.

Chappell notes that the Wholesale Applications Community (WAC) effort to standardize the APIs that expose telco assets to developers "is a good idea, but it's executing much too slowly."

"Now five of the world's largest operators are getting together to make telco APIs work, there is real hope that telcos will at last have a compelling proposition for developers -- and app users -- on a global scale. And the way these operators are going about defining and implementing these APIs suggest that they are beginning to institutionalize an Internet approach and Internet timescales," Chappell says.

— Phil Harvey, Editor-in-Chief, Light Reading

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