O2’s new developer programme shuns the API Litmus test

The appearance of the O2 Litmus site site prompted much excitement among the Broadband and Internet IC team. Was another operator about to expose the inner workings of its voice, SMS and other network services to the world?

This concept of open APIs for telecoms operators is a field we’ve been following since BT announced its Web21C SDK project back in May 2007. Sadly, from our biased points of view at least, it wasn’t to be: Litmus is another entrant into the mobile application developer field. A worthy initiative, and a positive step towards operators embracing the (admittedly vague and ill-defined) concept of “openness”.

In general, it’s all gone a little quiet on the Open API front, in contrast to the large amount of hype around mobile applications, thanks in no small part to the success of Apple’s iPhone SDK. Most operator attempts to harness developers have been in this area, rather than through opening APIs.

Why is this? So far, most operator API initiatives have not got off to an auspicious start. Web21C SDK, seen as the gold standard for this area, has already closed down, in a sense at least. It is to be “folded”, in the words of BT, into Ribbit, the voice developer platform it purchased at the beginning of 2008. BT claims this was part of its plan all along, but it’s still a comedown from the grand aims it set out when it launched Web21C SDK. How often are the applications or tools of a company the size of BT folded into a small, but admittedly successful, start-up that employs fewer than 30 people?

Of the other open-API players, Orange is still aggressively pushing Orange Partner, Deutsche Telekom’s Developer Portal is still in its infancy, while Vodafone’s Betavine continues to be dominated by its mobile application developer project, rather than the API element.

It’s also riskier and more difficult for operators to expose their networks to developers than it is in providing a managed scheme that allows them to submit mobile applications. And there are some confines of being an operator- such as geographic coverage and termination rates-that make it impossible for them to truly replicate the free, open model refined and perfected by Google et al.

Perhaps most crucially, much of what operators are bringing to the table with their open API initiatives is not particularly new. There’s merit in operator arguments that they can provide a guaranteed level of service, and that they can provide a “one-stop shop” for API services. And a few of their offerings, such as Orange’s APIs that make use of customer data, are genuine USPs. But on the whole they’re still competing against numerous other nimble players that have more experience in this area than they do.

Mobile developers can get their applications onto the worlds’ handsets much more easily by partaking in developer programmes such as Litmus than were they to go it alone. It’s difficult to see how operator API initiatives can add this kind of value.

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