A year ago, a group of the world’s largest phone operators, including Vodafone and China Mobile, announced an initiative at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona to create a mobile applications community that would challenge the dominance of Apple’s App Store.
The Wholesale Applications Community aimed to make it easier for developers – which currently have to adapt theirs apps and gain approval every time they put their software on a new phone operating system – to build apps regardless of the device.
One year on and Peters Suh, chief executive of WAC, announced in Barcelona the commercial launch of a now 68-strong alliance and unveiled new software tools that will allow developers to sell apps that can be sold across devices. Companies including Ericsson, Telefónica and Huawei unveiled new cloud-based stores that will help house apps outside the existing operator-led app stores.
But absent from MWC were the developers themselves. In fact developers and analysts remain highly sceptical that WAC is anything more than a talking shop for telecom operators angry that they are not getting a slice of the revenues from a fast-expanding apps community that is dominated by Apple, maker of the iPhone, and Google, whose open source Android operating system is used by 28 handset makers and has its own app store.
Gartner, the research group, estimates that 17.7bn apps will be downloaded in 2011, a 117 per cent increase on last year. Revenue from mobile apps is expected to surpass $15.1bn this year, up from $5.2bn in 2010.
Yet while many handset operators have their own apps stores, two dominate. Apple’s store, which accompanied the launch of its 3G iPhone in 2008, houses 350,000 apps, while Google says there are 150,000 apps in its Android store.
While some argue having a large app store is irrelevant, analysts say it is what helps tie consumers to one handset market over another, particularly if you have paid for the app.
Developers, which range in size from large companies to one-man enterprises, make their money from either selling their apps, splitting revenue with an app store, or by taking in app adverts or in-app purchases on games.
Adam Leach, principal analyst at Ovum, says coming up with another ecosystem for developers could prove “an uphill struggle” for operators. Apple and Google have established their own app ecosystems and have their own developer programmes. “Collaborations [between telecoms operators] in the past have not been too successful. There is a business intent and common interest but there tends to be a difficulty on agreeing a standard,” says Mr Leach.
Developers agree that reconfiguring apps for each new operating system – be it Apple’s iOS platform, Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7, Android or one of the many other platforms – is an unnecessary expense. It requires additional time and labour to rewrite codes that can run into tens of thousands of dollars depending on the complexity of the app. However, developers remain sceptical about WAC’s ability to drive change.
“It would be really good if they could make it work,” says Peter Vesterbacka, head of Rovio, the Finnish developer behind the highly successful Angry Birds app. “But I’ve seen many initiatives from operators over the years and none of them have really gone anywhere.”
Even with common standards, very complicated apps would still not work easily across platforms, they say. Developers say they have gravitated to Apple and Google’s Android platform because they have a fertile developer community. Involving the telecoms operators will not necessarily improve that experience.