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Vodafone Leads Open Global App-Store Push

Phil Harvey
5/30/2012
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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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miar70
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miar70,
User Rank: Light Beer
12/5/2012 | 5:31:26 PM
re: Vodafone Leads Open Global App-Store Push


@Sarah


Highly unlikely as any app that has content built in or access to content usually that content is licensed individually to each network, so being able to get NFL Live or redzone on AT&T would violate the premium price that NFL charged Vz for exclusivity. So I expect that these apps would have to be the sort that don't require any further licensing or where the licensing is for a global market.

DCITDave
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DCITDave,
User Rank: Light Beer
12/5/2012 | 5:31:32 PM
re: Vodafone Leads Open Global App-Store Push


I think the apps will work however they're designed, the important piece is that all the carriers will serve each other's customers. So if AT&T is able to attract a developer that DT can't, DT can still benefit from telling its customers about that developer's games/apps.


The advantage to the subscriber is that it is far easier to just use the app store that's native to the phone vs. having to shop around. I see this as an interesting first step to what may be at least one more solid choice for consumers and developers. Right now all these carriers are out an island with all of them chasing Apple and Google. Now they can at least get the advantage of working with a larger developer base and a larger customer base.

Soupafly
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Soupafly,
User Rank: Light Sabre
12/5/2012 | 5:31:33 PM
re: Vodafone Leads Open Global App-Store Push


@ Phil H; "The operators are well behind so I think the important thing for them is to work well, not quickly."


Imho, the carriers dont have the luxury of a either/or approach and the two concepts are not mutually exclusive. The carriers have to deliver on both. A good enough launch & then a hungry & focused programming team with an iterative approach is what I would create, a SWAT team if you like inside the group or each carrier team.


jcalder; The attraction is fundamentally in the time to market, ease of use/billing and relationships. The carriers will really have to focus on these 3 components.


The key distinguisher here will fundamentally be how carriers answer the ubiquitous OTT question. Is it monetised or neutralised?


So far all the monetisation has migrated away from the carriers to apple & Google. We all know that. We can also see that neutralisation is a sterile & useless strategy without an alternative. But, if this works (as per the article) then you can turn the DPI platforms up on some of the OTT plays and make using your App Store & platform allot more fun & streamlined to use & deliver content from than alternatives.


That must be the goal here. I cant see another play that has better strategic resonance.


Sf


Michelle Donegan
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Michelle Donegan,
User Rank: Light Beer
12/5/2012 | 5:31:33 PM
re: Vodafone Leads Open Global App-Store Push


It's really exciting to see these operators work together in this way and their plan is compelling. 


The initiative looks a lot less cumbersome than WAC and it certainly looks like it will have a better chance of succeeding than efforts to get rich communications suite (RCS) services off the ground have had so far.

patentchoi
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patentchoi,
User Rank: Light Beer
12/5/2012 | 5:31:35 PM
re: Vodafone Leads Open Global App-Store Push


What happens if a subscriber is outside these 5 carriers ? Does the app stop working ? That doesn't happen with apps in iTunes, Play. Any advantage to subscriber besides carrier-billing ?


Why would an app publisher use this new app-store when iTunes and Play already exist? 


Would this new app-store be itself an "app" in iTunes or Play. In that case would the 30% cut that iTunes charges apply to apps in this new store ?

DCITDave
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DCITDave,
User Rank: Light Beer
12/5/2012 | 5:31:36 PM
re: Vodafone Leads Open Global App-Store Push


I think the answer is that may not make carrier app dev more attractive than Apple, but it will make it more attractive than carrier app development is NOW. And that's still more progress than I would have given the network operators a few years ago.

joset01
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joset01,
User Rank: Light Beer
12/5/2012 | 5:31:37 PM
re: Vodafone Leads Open Global App-Store Push


"One, will they really work quickly? Sounds like they're planning to via the web, but the WAC was also an operator partnership free of trade group involvement and web-focused, and look how slow it's proceeded..."


 


This is pretty key, the new effort is WAC-lite as far as I can tell. Maybe that will be easier, since the 24-carrier group launched its WAC effort over 2 years ago without much to show for it.


 





jcadler
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jcadler,
User Rank: Light Beer
12/5/2012 | 5:31:38 PM
re: Vodafone Leads Open Global App-Store Push


This is an interesting idea, but only from a theoretical persective.  The more fundamental idea is that all cartels are inherently unstable, and when the carriers are the members-owners the half-life will be short.  Beyond the theory, what is attractive to the developer community in this?  Besides a large available market, it's hard to imagine the revenue split, ease-to-publish, and toolset(s) will be better than Google and Apple.  Not even five years from now.

DCITDave
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DCITDave,
User Rank: Light Beer
12/5/2012 | 5:31:39 PM
re: Vodafone Leads Open Global App-Store Push


re: One, will they really work quickly? 


"They" meaning the downloaded apps or the operators? The operators are well behind so I think the important thing for them is to work well, not quickly.


As for the apps, I'm sure certain apps won't work on certain devices and some with hooks to proprietary content won't be worth much to someone not on the network hosting that content. 


That said, if you are a developer and building an app for AT&T's network, you now have a much wider possible audience of consumers to reach via these API redirects.


I think the way this works is much different than the WAC. They're not standardizing APIs here. This is about making apps in carrier stores act in a way that is analogous to Web sites with embedded content, or some other form of URL redirect. Much different than telling all carriers to write certain code a certain way.

sarahthomas1011
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sarahthomas1011,
User Rank: Light Beer
12/5/2012 | 5:31:40 PM
re: Vodafone Leads Open Global App-Store Push


This is a really interesting idea. I have a few reservations though. One, will they really work quickly? Sounds like they're planning to via the web, but the WAC was also an operator partnership free of trade group involvement and web-focused, and look how slow it's proceeded...


Two, what kind of apps would this entail? As far as I know, carrier apps aren't that exciting or unique unless they're proprietary. So, could an AT&T customer get Verizon's V Cast mobile video app or, better yet, NFL Live? I doubt it.

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