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The networks get that it's the apps, stupid. But can they do anything about it?

Paul Nesbitt

Say what you like about the iPhone, but it's completely revolutionised the smartphone market. And not just for consumers. It's scared the bejeezus out of the mobile networks as well as handset makers like Nokia and Motorola.

In the pre-iPhone days it was the networks, like O2 and Orange, who called the shots. The whole mobile phone experience was controlled by the networks, who enjoyed the direct contact with the customer, and who determined, by and large what features appeared on your mobile.

Hell, O2 even had a large dome-shaped building in south London, which no-one knew what to do with, named after itself. The idea was that as an O2 customer, rather than, say a Motorola, HTC, Nokia or Sony Ericsson customer, you would enjoy privileged access to O2 concerts, and cool clubs, as well as discounted meals.

It was rare to see TV commercials advertising the benefits of a new must have handset. Compare that to today where it's hard to avoid TV commercials for the iPhone telling us that it's the handset you use that's important rather than the network.

Actually it's not even the iPhone, which Apple is using as the prime selling point. It's all those little iPhone apps, which are the big story.

And with more than 140,000 available from Apple's App Store, and more than three billion app downloads, Apple dominates the market for smartphone apps. Accodring to Gartner the market for smartphone apps will be worth $6.2 billion this year, with downloads reaching 4.5 billion apps compared to 2.5 billion during 2009.

That's why the an unlikely combination of the mobile industry's great and good – including LG, Samsung, and Sony Ericsson along with 24 networks including Orange, O2 and Vodafone – announced the Wholesale Applications Community (WAC) at this year's Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.

It's the applications, stupid.

The WAC's aims are perfectly laudable. First its backers want to create a single online market place for mobile phone apps, regardless of which OS they are running to 'unite a fragmented marketplace and create an open industry platform that benefits everybody.'

Ultimately, the WAC intends to create a unified standard so that developers can create apps that will run on a variety of smarphones running a variety of OSes.

And with a claimed customer base of three billion any standard that WAC's members come up with will surely be attractive to apps developers and ultimately customers.

However, it's far from clear that this network carrier-led initiative will be successful. The networks, whose relationships with each other could politely be termed fractious, have shown little sign that will be able to stick together, even against a common enemy like Apple.

Then there are the enormous technical challenges behind the WAC idea. Even Google, which offers a single platform in the form of Android, has suffered from fragmentation caused by different handset vendors customising different releases of Android. As a result developers creating Android apps are already complaining that not all Android phones will run their apps.

Imagine, then, the problems in dealing with the problem of fragmentation for different brand phones running different smartphone OSes. How will a developer know what each WAC phone's hardware specs are (eg screen resolution, trackball, processor speed, GPS etc)?

These sort of problems will almost certainly lead towards phone apps that are designed to the lowest expected common denominator, meaning that they are unlikely to particularly exciting.

In the mean time the rise of HTML 5 means that the prospects of a powerful web-based apps which feel like they've been downloaded will draw closer. In which case the WAC's job will partly be done for it.



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