Vodafone UK’s iPhone Web app is a great play for an early lead in the mobile application sector

Vodafone UK’s launch of a Web application for the iPhone has caused much speculation that the operator is about to sell the iPhone in the UK, robbing O2 UK of its exclusivity with the device. If this were true, if would most likely mean that O2 decided not to meet Apple’s terms for retaining exclusive rights to sell the device.

But regardless of the truth of these rumors, what’s actually far more interesting about the launch of the app is what it says about Vodafone’s strategy for the mobile internet.

The move is incredibly original, because it positions Vodafone as an aggregator of mobile-specific content to iPhone users, regardless of the fact that it doesn’t have any kind of formal relationship with them.

Vodafone is essentially saying to iPhone users: “We know mobile, we’ll filter content for you that’s highly relevant to you when you’re on the go, and we’ll put it in one easy-to-find place.”

The move is also highly disruptive, because it undermines the relationship that O2 – the exclusive iPhone operator in the UK – has with end-users. No longer does O2 UK have a monogamous relationship with users: It now has Vodafone to contend with.

The move is also important because iPhone users are generally early adopters of mobile services, so Vodafone’s iPhone Web app will enable it to take an early lead over rivals in the mobile application sector.

What is the Vodafone UK iPhone web app?

Vodafone beta-launched a free iPhone widget April 30 that takes users to a Vodafone portal, which carries Vodafone-aggregated content from other content providers, also accessed via web apps.

How does it work? Vodafone set up a web site that contains a link for iPhone users to download the Vodafone app to their devices, which they can then use to access the Vodafone portal.

A web app is fundamentally different than a widget, the other method of accessing web-based services via the iPhone. Unlike a widget, a Web app doesn’t install a program on the device; it contains a link to another Web site, accessed via the iPhone’s Web browser, Safari.

Crucially, by using a web app, Vodafone doesn’t have to gain approval from Apple for the service, as all providers of widgets do.

Once users are in the Vodafone portal, they can access content from media outlets such as Lonely Planet, CNN, BBC World and BBC News. There’s also a search function powered by Google. The portal has the look and feel of Vodafone, which will obviously build and augment its online identity.

Also on the portal is a “get widgets” link, which takes users to a Vodafone-hosted home page, offering content from big media brands, organized by category.

Where to next for the app?

It’s important to remember that the Vodafone iPhone Web app is still in the beta-testing phase. So what is available at the moment is without question just a taste of things to come. We can expect more mobile-specific services, particularly ones that take advantage of the iPhone’s location-based technology.

What’s clear is that Vodafone is using the iPhone Web app to try to become a big player in the mobile application sector. As such, Vodafone can be expected to launch proprietary applications via the Web app.

Although Vodafone won’t sideline its own portal for the iPhone app in the UK, the two can be expected to run side-by-side, with one shaping development of the other.

It’s ironic that the portal concept has been reborn with the iPhone. The portal was the first idea that mobile operators had to make money from 3G, but it failed because they were never highly relevant to mobile users, and, of course, they were painfully slow.

But with the iPhone, that’s all changed. The iPhone usually provides a fast and reliable 3G connection, and the screen is big enough and easy enough to navigate that browsing the Internet on the go is an enjoyable experience that users want to repeat.

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