Vodafone gets in on app store action with widget platform

Vodafone became the latest firm to issue a rallying call to developers, promising mobile app builders a dedicated channel to market and a billing system for their services.

As it rolled out its own application marketplace in May, the world’s biggest carrier in terms of revenue said that developers will only need to create internet applications once in order to reach millions of Vodafone customers on almost any device, regardless of operating system.

Michel Combes, CEO of the firm’s European region, said that the Vodafone app store, which will launch in the autumn, is part of the company’s three-pronged strategy announced in November 2008, with a focus on the enterprise, broadband and mobile internet markets.

“The idea is to foster innovation within the ecosystem, to create new business applications,” Combes said, going on to take a swipe at existing mobile application storefronts: “At present developers must address many different operating systems and devices as well as many different countries.”

Vodafone’s app store pitch relies on Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) that are agnostic of the operating system, and as a result the platform will be an open, widget-based environment that largely depends on the capabilities of the web browser on the device. In this case, the first browser to be supported will be Opera, so it will be devices based on the Symbian S60 operating system that get first access to the Vodafone app store, unless the company extends the reach of the platform before launch.

Even so, the app store will be developed and launched under the umbrella of the Joint Innovation Lab (JIL), the mobile web technology incubator established by Vodafone, Verizon, China Mobile and Softbank. The four companies are using the JIL as a platform to develop mobile services to benefit of their combined global customer base, with a particular focus on emerging technologies such as widgets.

While individually branded app stores will be launched by Vodafone, Verizon, Softbank and China Mobile, they will all feature the same wares, Combes said, giving developers access to a potential market of around 850 million subscribers.

And one of the additional benefits of Vodafone’s ‘smart pipe’ approach is that application developers will be able to charge for their apps and services directly through Vodafone’s own billing system. “With Vodafone you can target the applications to any device, in any country, on any OS. You need only create the application once and then bill via a familiar, secure billing system,” Combes said.

Of course, this means Vodafone can cream off a share of the revenue produced by app sales, much as other app store owners do, but the platform will also allow the carrier to monetise network assets such as location.

Vodafone said it will provide developers with customer-controlled access to network capabilities such as location awareness, enabling them to create more innovative mobile internet services and applications. A set of network APIs will provide a link between the applications and the Vodafone network capabilities and will work across the entire Vodafone global footprint thanks to a new layer of management technology based on Service Oriented Architecture.

Telecoms.com recently spoke to Simon Buckingham, CEO of content specialist mobile streams and US-based location firm Zoombak, who described the kind of move being made by Vodafone as essential in a mature industry on the way to commoditisation. “Operators can no longer rely on their old business models where voice, text and roaming were charged at a significant premium. Those business models are end of life now. Operators need to recognise that they have to embrace innovation. And the thing that they have that nobody else has, is control over access to location information. This is the time to make that information available; if they don’t do it now their relevance is going to diminish,” he said.

Vodafone’s Combes said the carrier will offer access to selected network enablers through the JIL initiative, with developers able to get a first look at the set up via a website and a Software Developer Kit to be released over the summer. The move will be accompanied by a framework to provide customers with transparency and control over how their information is accessed and used, Combes said.

Although smartphones are the primary target of the app store, and therefore only a small proportion of the JIL’s combined subscriber base, the fact that the widgets will run in the browser means that mid range devices can expect to be increasingly targeted.

But the app store frenzy has spread further than the traditional mobile sector and while Vodafone has its eye on a target market of hundreds of millions of subscribers, US software shop Sun Microsystems claims to have its own eye on an even bigger prize.
Shortly after Vodafone made its announcement, Jonathan Schwartz, CEO of Sun, revealed his own plans to get in on the game, on a much bigger scale. The firm reckons Java is installed on around 2.1 billion mobile phones and other handheld devices, and is targeting an active market of about one billion Java users around the world with its own app store – the Java Store.

“As with other app stores, Sun will charge for distribution – but unlike other app stores, whose audiences are tiny, measured in the millions or tens of millions, ours will have what we estimate to be approximately a billion users. That’s clearly a lot of traffic, and will position the Java App Store as having just about the world’s largest audience,” said Schwartz.

Sun’s JavaFX Mobile is a scripting language designed for creating rich content and applications to run on Java-powered devices from mobile phones to set top boxes, and coincidentally, Vodafone is a big supporter and user of JavaFX technology in its own Live! services.

There’s also the ill-fated Java-based mobile OS known as SavaJe. Sun acquired the intellectual property assets of SavaJe for an undisclosed sum in 2007 after SavaJe ran into financial difficulties.

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