Orange lays ground work for Apple-style app store for IPTV

I had an interesting conversation last week with Steve Glagow, the leader of Orange Partner, the ambitious third-party developer programme of France Telecom. And he confirmed to me that Orange was planning to do something we suspected an operator might try sooner or later: build an Apple-style app store for IPTV.

Orange will lay the ground work at its annual Partner Camp event to be held in Cape Canaveral the week after next. There, the operator will call on the assembled developers to help it build what the event’s programme calls a “TV application shop for open set-top boxes”.

Described as such, it would be easy to dismiss Orange’s plan as simply another “me-too” attempt by the telecoms industry to ape Apple’s phenomenally-successful App Store. But the operator is taking a slightly different tack.

Apple’s App Store sells applications that only work on two types of handheld device, the iPhone and the iPod Touch. Orange’s TV store will likely offer content and applications that can customers can already access via their mobile handsets and PCs. As Glagow explains:

“We have a converged strategy. We don’t believe you can buy technology which runs across the handset, the PC and the set-top device effectively. Television is one area – the set-top device – is where we believe we’re lacking in sharing content that would run on a PC and would run on a mobile phone. And what we’re trying to do is build that solution.

“Can [Orange] replace the Apple application shop? Well, I don’t know. Maybe we can, but it has to be a lot smarter than the kind of stuff that’s out there today.”

How soon might that happen? Partner Camp is designed to encourage developers to rally around the trends Orange hopes will catch on over the next 18 to 24 months. And the TV app store, along with a raft of other digital home ideas, is getting prime billing this year. Glagow:

“I think we can do it in 18-24 months. Will the world be willing to adopt it in 18-24 months? Probably in 36 months. But unless you have the infrastructure in place to do it, then it’s hard to get the customers to adopt it.”

You can’t fault Orange’s ambition. But its hope that a converged approach will set any store it builds apart from the likes of Apple’s could be the plan’s undoing.

The success of Apple’s App Store is built on three main foundations: the proven back-end infrastructure of iTunes; a base of customers used to buying digital media from the company; and a limited range of devices that customers and developers know will “just work” with the system.

Orange can claim similar foundations in the form of its well-established billing systems and base of subscribers used to buying its mobile games, ringtones, video-on-demand and other content. But contrary to Apple’s example, Orange is betting that compatibility with a wide range of mobile phones, set-top boxes and other computing devices will be key to success.

It’s easy to imagine how hard to this will be to achieve. The difficulties of developing applications that work across today’s vast and diverse array of handsets has long been a bugbear of the mobile industry. Throwing set-top boxes into the mix may only make the process even more complex.

This is presumably why Orange plans to use Partner Camp to kickstart the process. The question is whether the appeal of convergence will be enough to convince developers to embrace the complexity – and compromises – involved in developing applications that work on TVs as well as PCs and mobiles.

My colleague Giles Cottle is attending Partner Camp. It will be interesting to learn if the attendees will share Orange’s enthusiasm.

This article first appeared on the Intelligence Centre blog

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