Peters Suh: Apps are not a zero-sum game

When 24 of the telecoms world’s biggest players announced the formation of the Wholesale Applications Community (WAC) at the Mobile World Congress in February 2010, it’s fair to say the pundits’ response was overwhelmingly sceptical. The community’s stated vision of an open mobile development platform that would allow the creation of cross-device/OS/carrier applications was roundly dismissed as wishful thinking at best, cynical at worst.

Google VP of Engineering, Andy Rubin’s widely-quoted response that the write once, run anywhere dream was unlikely ever to be realised was deemed an apt summary of the folly of the venture. The inference was that if carriers were looking to loosen Google and Apple’s hold on the application market, they were wasting their time.

A year later, WAC has launched commercially and has a membership tally of 68, including AT&T, China Mobile, Verizon, Telefonica, Telenor and Orange. The sceptics are still there in numbers, but WAC CEO Peters Suh says he’s  pleased with progress, pointing to what he believes is the group’s critical mass, particularly in the operator department. “Over 27 mobile operators are members of WAC – essentially, the number one and two players in each market across the world is a member,” he says.

“And we’ve had good, broad support from the manufacturers,” he adds, pointing to Ericsson, Huawei, LG and Samsung, among others. ZTE was one of the first out of the blocks, with its WAC-enabled F952 smartphone, announced at this year’s MWC. WAC-enabled carrier-branded app stores based on white label solutions from Ericsson, Huawei and IBM are up and running, with Suh pointing to Telenor Serbia, Telefonica’s ‘Frigo’ apps community and Filipino carrier Smart Communications as the early adopters of the service.

But did the mobile applications world really need another player? Suh says WAC was never about whether or not there was room for more players, but rather about whether or not there was room for more choice. And as far as WAC is concerned, the answer was self-evident. “Obviously Apple and Google have had tremendous success and have done quite a bit to advance the industry, and we applaud them for that,” he says. “From a consumer and developer point of view, however, we believe WAC is about providing choice. And better reach and independence for developers.”

WAC essentially operates in the dual role of clearinghouse for developers and centralised apps pool for carriers. The apps are local, web-based, largely W3C widgets around which the community has built standards, definitions, structures and formats. The WAC 2.0 standard was released in February this year, and includes support for HTML5. WAC 3.0, which is due in September this year, will have what could well be the money shot in the whole deal:  developer access to operator network APIs. Suh believes that this last element, “opens up enormous possibilities for developers.”

Suh says that carriers offering developer access to network APIs constitutes a move into smart pipe thinking. “Once you have developers working off that back-end, it becomes less and less about simply carrying traffic and more about the intelligence of accessing data that is unique to operators,” he says. Giving the developer community access to that data “in a controlled manner” makes for what Suh calls “a very interesting paradigm.” It’s a gilt-edged opportunity for operators to inject something into the applications party that only they can bring.

“Operators have all invested billions, not only into the physical network, but into the entire infrastructure that’s behind it. If you provide that information through an API, through a common set, that presents a staggering opportunity,” says Suh, “not only for developers but also from the point of view of innovative applications and services for customers.” And, presumably, carriers in search of a differentiator.

Responding to criticism that all of this is just another spoke in the fragmentation wheel – after all, even the omnipresent Android leaves developers steering a course through a broad range of devices and their individual foibles – Suh claims the opposite is actually the case. “For us, technically, a lot of what we’re about is trying to reduce fragmentation as much as possible,” he says. Pointing to the myriad standards and choices for device operating systems, Suh says “Our view is that you’re not going to really differentiate in a significant way on the device runtime, so let’s make it more common, let’s make those API calls more consistent across the board, regardless of manufacturer or operating system. And let’s make the developer environment friendlier.”

Is that a write once, run everywhere scenario? “That would be a fantastic end-state, but we know there’s still work to do on that front from an industry perspective – WAC’s perspective is how do we make that goal easier for developers to accomplish.” WAC’s web-based aspects certainly allow developers to sidestep the need to write native apps for specific devices, although the presence of a standard API for native device functionality is in the mix. With AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson stating earlier this year that almost half the telco’s customers accessed the same content on three or more devices, it’s easy to see why HTML5 shows so much promise to an initiative like WAC, especially when you take on board resources like presence information or the capacity to build apps that work offline.

Suh says that the combination of API specs, web standards and potential customer reach of over three billion is a powerful mix, not least when you consider that the device manufacturers are also at the WAC party. The real tipping point could be when WAC-enabled devices go mainstream; it’s unlikely that developers will eschew the opportunity to play in a market of such magnitude, where web-based applications can mix with native ones in a revenue-sharing environment that allows developers and operators to negotiate their own terms. “WAC’s model gives operators who are otherwise competing with each other the flexibility to do deals with individual developers,” says Suh. “Carriers can negotiate with developers to achieve better placement, positioning, exclusivity…They can negotiate this separately.”

WAC’s common platform vision might put everyone on a level playing field in terms of developer access, but Suh says there’s no similar requirement when it comes to revenue models. “The most common revenue-sharing arrangement we’re seeing is 70/30,” he says, “we haven’t specified a business model as far as specific revenue share is concerned; members have all sorts of sensitivity points in that regard, whether it’s regulatory or market driven.” Models cover a broad spectrum of free, paid and shared, with operators in a position to negotiate exclusivity with developers as part of an overall strategy to differentiate within the limits of a popular OS.

As Suh points out, it’s an interesting development in an industry once defined by its walled garden approach to everything. “There’s this notion out there that this is a zero-sum game and that’s not really our view,” he says. “As long as WAC provides better options and choices, it’s better for everyone.”

Suh says that WAC lacks a vested interest in any one OS, platform or operator, putting it in a unique position to create a broader, more interoperable development ecosystem in which no one platform dominates. If that sounds like a move into standards territory, Suh says that’s only half the story; while standards obviously form part of the landscape, the vision is a lot broader than that. “We want to open things up so that it’s standard across the industry, but we also want this to be operational – that’s what makes WAC different from standards body groups,” says Suh.

Another criticism levelled at WAC has been that this is just another late-to-the-party attempt by carriers to muscle in on a market they did little to create or innovate on. Suh disagrees, saying that carriers have tried “for at least ten years to provide applications within a mobile framework.” He adds that delays caused by issues around devices, software services and topography and different commercial models have all contributed to a less than speedy emergence out of the blocks. “Could they have been faster? Probably,” says Suh.

“One of the things that has been a catalyst for the industry overall in the past few years is the belief in the enormous potential for smartphones and for the applications that run on them – operators are trying to address that.” One of the WAC initiatives likely to open up the opportunities in this space is in-app billing and authentication, which Suh says will debut in the WAC 3.0 spec, due in September this year. Yes, Apple has been offering the service since 2009, RIM has it and Google launched it for its Android Marketplace in March this year (having promised it for more than a year), but Suh points to its impending arrival in WAC’s specifications as part of an overall strategy of building credibility by hitting milestones.

Cynicism aside, carriers responding to developments outside their control inside a year could be interpreted as blistering pace in some quarters. With suggestions that developers are hitting a spot of Android fatigue, maybe its time to begin looking at the carriers and the WAC in a hare-vs-tortoise sense.

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