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Five Operators, One Giant App Store

Later this month, five of the world’s largest mobile operators plan to launch a virtual app store that will let their customers buy apps from one another. For developers, one potential benefit is access to each operator’s APIs to enable operator-specific additional features without rewriting big chunks of the app for each operator.

By Tim Kridel

Later this month, five of the world’s largest mobile operators plan to launch a virtual app store that will let their customers buy apps from one another. For developers, one potential benefit is access to each operator’s APIs to enable operator-specific additional features without rewriting big chunks of the app for each operator.

We spoke with Heavy Reading analyst-at-large Caroline Chappell, who recently met with the new app store’s architect, Michel Burger, head of architecture at Vodafone's Technology Strategy and Products Group. Although many of the store’s details are still under wraps -- Vodafone declined our interview request with Burger -- Chappell was able to get an overview of how the store will work and what it could mean for the app marketplace.

Which operators have agreed to participate in the store and when does it launch?

Caroline Chappell: The operators are AT&T, Deutsche Telekom, Vodafone, Verizon Wireless and Telefónica. I believe the store will launch in September.

What void did the participating operators see in the marketplace, and how does this app store fill that void?

C.C.:

There are two aspects to this:

  • Interlinked app stores so that customers of thedifferent operators can download apps from each others' stores. Myunderstanding is [they would do that] while roaming, rather than aVodafone user choosing to go to an AT&T store while in their owncountry.
  • Common APIs for developers so that they can write anapp that uses one operator's version of the API and have it work on allthe other operators' networks.

Basically, all these operators were board members of the Wholesale Applications Community (WAC), which collapsed in July 2012. The idea behind WAC was to have a large “warehouse” of applications operators could draw on to extend their own catalogs. This appears to be a more pragmatic approach, which means that customers can stay in touch with an operator app store wherever they are, so less incentive to go to the Apple App Store or Android Market.

I would guess that there is an intention to have higher levels of integration over time, if the collaboration proves to work. Operators need volume and scale to drive customer “footfall” through their digital stores to attract developers, and individual operators are struggling with this versus the Apple and Android ecosystems.

As a group, though, they have much more chance of redressing the balance, and this particular group is a powerful one, with considerable experience…and with pretty aligned views on where the market is going and what they need to do if they want to avoid becoming dumb pipes. If this alliance really does fly -- and it's at a much better scale than WAC, which had 28 operator members -- it could establish a convincing alternative ecosystem to Apple and Google.

WAC also assumed the mantle of a standardization body for telco APIs but didn't manage to specify even one API. The in-app payment API it was working on has gone to API management company, Apigee, which the new operator group will be jointly using to expose assets to developers.

The new operator group is going to give API harmonization another try, although it's not clear what the mechanism for this would be. The “Internet” way would be to go to whichever telco has the best API to a particular service/telco asset and for the others simply to copy them, but they may be putting a more formal process in place. Developers want to build apps for the largest customer base possible, and with a common set of Web APIs to build to, they would potentially be able to reach a much larger set of customers than is available from a single operator.

From a developer perspective, how will the store work?

C.C.:

It may be that a developer submits an app to any store and it gets replicated into the others' stores if it conforms to the common APIs. WAC wasn't able to negotiate with developers on behalf of members for anti-trust purposes, and I guess the same will apply here. Even if it's a question of publish once, populate multiple stores, developers will still have to negotiate their revenue shares separately with each operator.

In the case of the in-app payment API, if a user wants to buy something from within the app -- for example, the next level of a game -- the app would submit the request in a standard way (through the API), which would be “understood” by any of the operators, regardless of the systems they are using to fulfill and collect payment for the request underneath.

Will there be a process for submitting apps?

C.C.:

Each of the operators already has a store and a process for submitting apps. I didn't get any sense that the group will be jettisoning these in favor of a common process, although this might.

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Tim Kridel has been covering all things tech and telecom since 1998 for a variety of publications and analyst firms. Based in Columbia, Mo., he still enjoys the childhood hobby that led to a career writing about technology: ham radio.  He is a frequent contributor to Digital Innovation Gazette.