opinion


If they build it, will they come?

eBay is focusing on its e-commerce offerings

Acclaimed travel writer Bill Bryson once remarked: “We used to build civilizations. Now we build shopping malls.” In 2009, that observation became a theme for the mobile space. Mobile platform developers, handset manufacturers and operators alike have unanimously moved on from building up their developer communities and have switched their focus to opening virtual marketplaces in a bid to tap into a promising revenue stream.

Since Apple ignited the app store revolution in mid-2008 with the opening of its own, aptly named, App Store, both rivals and partners have been falling over themselves in the hope of replicating the firm’s success in the space. In July, Apple said that iPhone users had racked up more than 1.5 billion application downloads in the first year since launch. Apple’s storefront now boasts more than 65,000 apps available to consumers in 77 countries and more than 100,000 developers in the iPhone Developer Program.

These are big numbers, and they’ve been duly noted by other players in the industry. But Apple has capitalised on the ‘vertical stovepipe’ model it uses to lock down its revenues and is still the only firm to really drive home the app store concept via its marketing and advertising campaigns.

Without the same level of control over both the hardware and software, some of the other app storekeepers are facing a challenge in the form of market fragmentation. When asked why the Symbian Foundation didn’t open its own store, instead opting to let Symbian developers pitch their apps to the numerous operator or vendor run initiatives, Laura Merling, acting head of developer programmes says: “We don’t want to compete with our members. We want to bring them value and grow the ecosystem. Most consumers don’t know they have Symbian on their phone. They know which vendor made their phone, and they know their carrier. It’s not like Apple, which is all in one,” Merling says.

“But as soon as it starts getting out on other devices, then you’ll have the same fragmentation issues. So those different apps are going to be in different stores again. It fragments distribution. We don’t want another store. We want to help the developers and the stores to get more apps in the stores.”

To date, Nokia’s Ovi has been the de facto store for Symbian apps—at least in publicity terms. But this is probably down to the Finnish firm’s historical affiliation with the platform and there’s nothing to rule out other handset vendors or operators building their own app stores around Symbian offerings. The Foundation certainly hopes so and wants to be there to help them with that process. Other shop fronts that feature Symbian goods are the Samsung Application Store and US carrier AT&T’s Media Mall.

“Look at Ovi, they’ve said ‘here’s the type of apps we want in our store, if you can help us find those and help us supply those’,” Merling says. “The great part is we can go to the developer community and tell them these are the top types of apps companies are seeking for their stores. Some might focus on entertainment, others on media, or utilities. They might not have focused on local search and local discovery. Every app store has its things that it’s missing and we can act as a facilitator of that on a broader scale,” she adds.

Key to this approach is an efficient publishing platform for applications, which for Symbian is Horizon – an initiative described by programme leader Sean Puckrin as “equivalent to a record label in the music business”. The aim of Horizon is to offer a range of services to developers to help them get Symbian-friendly versions of their applications into various stores, thus lowering the cost of distribution.

“What we’ve looked at is two areas in which Symbian could help the broader ecosystem,” Merling explains. “One of them is starting with the processing of apps. If you think about a developer, the market for Symbian is pretty fragmented. There are 25 different stores that you might deploy your app into to get distribution. With the Apple iPhone there’s just one store. So how do you get enough apps in the store if you’re the store owner—and, if you’re the developer, do you want to choose one store over another? You want the broadest distribution, so you want to be in all of them. But there are time and money costs associated with that. So our goal with the Horizon platform is an app publishing platform. The goal is to minimise the cost to the developer for getting distribution.”

For the likes of Apple, this isn’t an issue. The company benefits from an almost fanatical developer base and, along with Research In Motion (RIM), Microsoft and Palm, a single channel to market. Android, the mobile OS venture backed by Google and the Open Handset Alliance (OHA), differs slightly from this crowd due to the fact that it has a single app store—Android Market—but it also has strong operator backing because of its open and accommodating attitude towards the carrier community. As a result, operators are able to take more control of the applications their users are downloading and offer Android-based applications through their own app stores.

However, there is a common issue that crops up time and time again, affecting the closed distribution models as much as it affects the open ones. How much control should the operating system developers exercise over the application vetting process?

Apple’s vetting process for applications, at times seemingly random, has caused plenty of controversy, with a number of applications bouncing in and out of the app store like yo-yos as Apple apparently vacillates over their validity. Developers have complained that Apple has been less than forthcoming with explanations as to why certain apps have been removed, but some commentators believe operator partners have had a word in Apple’s ear about certain applications, such as VoIP apps or those that allow tethering, which they don’t want running on their networks.

Conversely, Android has caught flak for being too lax in its own vetting policies which, when the Android Market first opened its doors in 2008, resulted in a certain amount of malware or virus-infected applications being released through the official channel. Then again, Android has also pulled applications from its own storefront after carriers complained they violated certain terms and conditions. Once again, VoIP was a common culprit.

It’s still early days for many of the other app stores. RIM only recently showed off its BlackBerry Widget Software Development Kit (SDK), a suite of tools allowing third party application developers to build rich, web-based applications for BlackBerry handsets, and Palm will officially open the doors to its Palm webOS developer programme in December. Meanwhile Microsoft has already drawn its line in the sand, releasing a list of what it will and won’t allow Windows mobile applications sold in its store to do, when it launches in the fourth quarter of this year.

But the lack of consistency and regulation in this nascent market has already caught the attention of the authorities. The US Federal Communications Commission recently took its first look into the business, having sent letters to Apple, its US carrier partner AT&T and Google asking for answers as to why Apple blocked Google’s VoIP application, which enables AT&T subscribers to make free voice calls.

That particular case is ongoing and its outcome will likely set a precedent for the rest of the industry. Not least because it has the potential to exacerbate the bottleneck problem likely to arise from the application inspection process as app stores rise in popularity. Screening each and every application to be made available for a certain platform is a timely process as well as an expensive one – more so for fragmented platforms like Symbian and Linux – and for developers who depend on getting their wares into the market as soon as they’re released time is indeed of the essence.

“Every store does its own signing and testing – these things that every store has to do, but the reality is that a huge chunk of it is similar across all the stores,” says Symbian’s Merling. “So if the Foundation can act as a moderator—the place that all Symbian apps get processed—we become the testing ground, create a set of tools that let people create device independent apps and test them for them, approve them and get the distribution. A moderator which removes that cost from them in terms of managing that store; we see that as a big opportunity.”

The big test will be whether the storekeepers can assess and improve each application submitted in an efficient and fair manner, giving adequate feedback to application developers. When Verizon recently launched its developer community initiative (VDC), giving developers who have created apps for platforms such as Java, BREW, Android, Windows Mobile and others the opportunity to submit their creations for deployment in the company’s soon to be launched app store it promised a streamlined testing and certification process with the goal of having apps approved within 14 days of submission.

“The large number of platforms makes developing applications to work on a number of devices very expensive,” says Pascal Thomas, vice president of digital innovation and communities at Orange. So it might be that to combat fragmentation expenses, developers choose a single platform and stick to it, in which case it won’t necessarily be the biggest, but the most customer relevant shopping mall that provides the biggest pull. Then again, in order to maximise potential revenues, developers will need to get their goods into as many stores as possible, which will mean addressing fragmentation itself, both on the same platform and across different platforms. In this case, perhaps the industry needs to adopt a standards-based approach. “The industry needs to work together to develop some rules to gather developers together so we can have success like the Apple’s app store has had success,” Thomas adds.

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