JIL’s slow progress doesn’t bode well for WAC

The Wholesale Applications Community is keeping up with the timeline it announced back in May and was registered as a limited company in the UK on July 1, as well as appointed a board of directors featuring an impressive array of top executives from leading carriers from different corners of the world. It has also fleshed out plans for its merger with JIL – a similar initiative launched in April 2008 by a select clique of operators; namely China Mobile, Softbank Mobile, Verizon Wireless and Vodafone. JIL will be fully subsumed into WAC by the end of September, Michael O’Hara, chief marketing officer at the operator association the GSMA, told journalists and analysts during a webinar this week.

The chair and vice chair of WAC are Vodafone’s chief executive for Europe, Michel Combes, and France Telecoms’ deputy CEO, Jean-Philippe Vanot, respectively. The board of directors also includes executives from AT&T, China Mobile, Deutsche Telekom, KT Corporation, NTT DoCoMo, SK Telecom, Smart Communications, Softbank Mobile, Telecom Italia, Telefonica, Telekom Austria Group, Telenor and Verizon. Twenty carriers have so far signed up to the initiative as fee-paying members.

WAC aims to commercially launch its SDK by February of next year, allowing developers to create widgets that will run on a wide range of devices and be sold on the application stores of a wide range of operators – and it is confident it can keep to that deadline.

It all sounds impressive. So could operators prove sceptics wrong and successfully pull off a multilateral initiative of this scale where so many others have failed before? Could operators have found the answer to fighting back against the huge lead taken by mobile-industry outsiders Apple and Google on the mobile applications front?

I, for one, remain sceptical.

JIL numbers
WAC is largely modelled on its predecessor JIL, which also set out with the aim of creating a single SDK to develop mobile widgets for the combined customer base of nearly one billion subscribers of its member operators. JIL was launched more than two years ago, yet so far 9,000 developers have signed up and 8,000 widgets have been published on the platform. Contrast that with the 43,000 developers and 236,000 active applications currently on Apple’s App Store and the 5 billion downloads the store has clocked up since its launch on the iPhone in July 2008. No numbers are available for the number of JIL downloads.

What’s more, the only avenue available to JIL developers to sell their widgets is Vodafone’s V360 Shop, which is only available on a limited number of devices through eight of Vodafone’s subsidiaries in Europe – covering only part of the carrier-group’s footprint. And the Vodafone 360 service, of which the V360 Shop is a part, has had disappointing take up, accumulating fewer than 500,000 users by the end of May. The latest news from Vodafone is that it is discontinuing development of the Samsung H1 and M1 handsets, the only two devices which natively integrate the Vodafone 360 service.

Meanwhile, none of the other JIL operators have started distributing the platform’s widgets yet.

What is true of JIL will not necessarily be true of WAC. But, when combined with the poor track-record that operators have in both mobile content services and multilateral initiatives, the little progress made so far with JIL doesn’t bode well for WAC.

Clash of cultures
Operators need to distract developers’ attention away from iPhone, Android, BlackBerry and other smartphones to have any chance of generating enough traction for WAC. But many developers – and content providers – were left jaded by their first experiences of trying to deal with operators in the bad old days of the haughty operator portals. And most other developers don’t even have the operators on their radar. They belong to the online and computer worlds in which the likes of Google and Apple are iconic brands for whom they feel inspired to create stuff. Telcos are an alien species as far as they are concerned.

The kind of apps that WAC is aimed at – widgets – is also likely to put off many developers. Widgets and other applications created in web-runtime environments have the potential of reaching a broader audience than the native apps developed for specific smartphone operating systems. But their richness and functionality is severely limited by having to cater to lowest-common-denominator handset specs to reach as broad a range of devices as possible. The result is that the user experience is much poorer and the services that can be delivered much more basic, making it much harder to charge a premium. In fact, the vast majority of widgets are offered free of charge.

WAC intends to make it easy for developers to sell their widgets on operator application stores and portals. But that won’t be of much use if users expect to download them for free.

To its credit, WAC is also planning to enable in-app payments and in-app advertising. But it doesn’t expect the latter to come on stream for another two to three years at least, when hopefully the WAC community will have built up enough critical mass to attract enough ad revenue. Meanwhile, Apple’s in-app advertising service, iAd, has generated around US$75 million in the first two months since it started taking bookings, which according to some sources is more than has ever been spent on mobile advertising in the US by the big brands.

Good idea, but…
Don’t get me wrong. I think the idea behind WAC is a good. It is trying to overcome one of the operators’ biggest deficiencies in relation to smartphone players like Apple and Google: global reach. And it is trying to go one better by reaching out to devices of all types – not just the smartphones owned by an elite of mobile users – and by enabling widget payments via carrier billing – a far-more ubiquitous form of payment than the credit/debit-card dependent payment methods pushed by Apple and Google.

But WAC is three years too late. The market momentum now is with the outsiders from the online and computer worlds. The mobile players are playing catch-up, and the operators are at the back of the pack.

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