The iPhone app store will have stiff competition in the future, but it won’t be from the Mobile World Congress (MWC). The industry trade show in Barcelona set the stage for an announcement that 24 telecom operators from AT&T to Verizon to T-Mobile to Sprint as well as Vodafone, Orange, China Unicom and many more from around the world are forming the Wholesale Applications Community (WAC), an open platform for application development on mobile devices.
The goal: to create an open platform that allows developers to easily create applications for all mobile devices on a single platform and allows consumers to purchase and maintain applications even if they switch mobile phones. (Oh, and also to put a slice of the money pie on the plates of the big telecom companies.)
Will it work? Not a chance.
First, what they are proposing is not exactly easy. The idea of creating a platform capable of running applications across multiple mobile operating systems is a challenge in and of itself, but so long as they ride the coattails of Java, which built to do exactly that, it is certainly possible.
But there are more differences in handsets than just the operating system. Does it have a touchscreen? A trackball? A physical QWERTY keyboard? How many buttons does it have and what do they do? Is there a camera? GPS? Does it have multi-touch? Will it support push notification?
The end result are applications that aim at the least common denominator. They utilize low end graphics and avoid hardware-specific functionality like special buttons or features like the accelerometer. This might be fine for a Facebook application or a Twitter client, but you aren’t exactly going to be playing Street Fighter IV on anything that comes out of WAC.
Second, this is a partnership of telecom companies, not technology companies. There is no long history of building platforms here. It is basically a bunch of people in the stands trying to jump into a sporting event as athletes. Furthermore, these are fans of opposing teams hoping to work together, which might not mesh so great as each has their own individual goals that may not coincide with the group.
What can we expect to come out of competitors trying to work together? The telecom industry isn’t known for being customer-centric. They gouge the public with sky high text messaging fees, demand long contracts with high cancellation charges and practice the high art of obfuscation in hopes of keeping the prospective customer confused enough that they’ll sign on the dotted line. And these are the people in charge of creating a customer-friendly platform?
Third, they are facing superior competition. Not only will they have to compete with the iPhone app store, but also with app stores from Android to Blackberry to Windows Mobile. And while developers might be fine putting out WAC-compatible applications, they certainly aren’t going to do so exclusively. Especially not when their WAC version must be watered down to support a plethora of configurations.
These app stores are also supporting native applications designed to run on their platforms. It’s too early to tell on if WAC applications will run in a virtual machine on top of the platform or if each application will be compiled separately for each individual operating system, but the extra layer will present extra challenges that will translate to extra bugs.
This is a last ditch effort for telecom companies to stay relevant.
Voice is going away. The future is Voice over IP, which means telecom companies will be regulated to simply selling us data connections. There won’t be text messaging, there will be instant messaging. There won’t be 500 minute plans and family talk plans. There will be Google Voice and Skype.
So while the bid for a universal open platform certainly has eyes on that money pie, it is also a grasp at that last straw of relevancy before these companies are regulated to simply maintaining the pipes.
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