App Stores Background
I know lots of people are saying that Apple invented the Application Store (App Store) for their iPhone/iTouch range of devices, but they would be wrong. App stores have been around for years - I have been a customer of Handango since before I joined IBM's Pervasive Computing team and that team has been gone for over three years now. Handango are an Internet based app store that have supported multiple handheld PDA and phone platforms. Others that I've used in the past include Tucows, although Tucows is more than just mobile applications - they also cover Win32, Linux, Mac etc as well. The big things that Apple did differently from Handango and their Internet brethren was:
- Restrict applications to a single platform (I count the iTouch and the iPhone as the same thing since the key difference lies in the Mobile Phone part, not the computing part of the device)
- Restrict the development tooling and platform environment by license restrictions (All applications must be approved by Apple and must not breach their license agreement - you still can't get a Java Virtual Machine on an iPhone for instance)
- Force users to install via their iTunes installation on their PC/Mac or over the air from their device. Not being an iPhone user, I am not 100% sure of this point. Is there an iTunes install for Linux? (Other platforms allow apps the be installed via bluetooth, memory cards, IR and direct USB copying.)
Of course, Apples' device competitors are trying to catch the same wave that Apple have been riding and deploy their own application store equivalents. We've seen efforts from Google, Nokia, Palm and Research In Motion (RIM - makers of the Blackberry) and interestingly, all have been somewhat successful. Successful at attracting developers which is key to then attracting users. Here are the their app stores:
Personally I am not a fan of Apple's restrictive market practices and much prefer the more open ecosystem that surrounds the Symbian and Windows mobile platforms. I have in the past written applications for Palm Garnet (nee PalmOS), Symbian and Windows Mobile for use within a corporate environment. Something that is not possible with Apples licensing policies and forcing developers to upload apps to the App Store so that Apple can approve them and then include them in the App Store catalogue. If I only want to write an application for my customer, I cannot deploy it directly to the customer's iPhones unless they have been jailbroken - the only alternative is for Apple to look at and approve the application then sign it. While the others also have the concept of signed and certified applications, you can install unsigned or un-certified applications on the other major platforms if you want (except for Android which appears to be going down a similar if less restrictive path to Apple).
Telcos and App Stores
In the past year as Telcos all around the world have watched Apple's App Store take off and seen their interaction with the iPhone subscribers being reduced to the supplier of the pipe to the Internet - way down from the high value position that most carriers aspire to in order to improve ARPU. I've seen requests form many Telcos in that time for Application Store or Widget Store capability. The telos - understandably - want to raise their profile in the eyes of the subscriber and their worth in the value proposition. I have seen request for proposal documents from telcos in China, Taiwan, Vietnam, USA and queries from telcos in Thailand, Philippines, Singapore, Japan and other countries. App/Widget Stores are certainly one of the topics of the moment for Telcos.
The key differentiators that a Telco has that separates it from Apple's App Store are:
- Support for multiple smartphone platforms - Symbian, Blackberry, Windows Mobile, Garnet (and presumably soon; WebOS and Android as well)
- The ability to sell things other than on device applications - this might include pre-paid top ups, ringtones, ringback tones, telco hosted applications (that could be delivered by the Telco's Service Delivery Platfform (SDP)
In fact, IBM has won and has (partially at this stage) implemented an app store in Vietnam. Because of the Telecom environment in Vietnam, this App Store is not actually within a telco, but is instead an external company*. The app store was implement with a combination of WebSphere Portal (to provide the user interface) and WebSphere Commerce (to provide the catalog and sales part of the App Store and WebSphere Message Broker for Integration requirements. I was involved from the very initial stages of that project.
The company intends to launch a Mobile Commerce and Advertising Platform (MCAP), which is a multi-channel platform enabling its members to do small value electronic transactions (or m-commerce and e-commerce. Some of their use cases include
- Mobile phone content buying and selling (logo, ring tone, ring-back-tone...)
- Purchasing small value digital products such as software, e-books, etc.
- Buying and Selling of other services and products such as information services, Souvenir, electronic tickets, promotion vouchers, etc.
- Low value payment services, such as prepaid top-up, game top-up, bill payment, etc.
- Online marketing, advertisement and promotion services over Internet and Mobile.
I don't often get involved in WebSphere Commerce projects (it tends to be a very specialized field) we do have a number of Telcos who are using WebSphere Commerce, not necessarily in App Stores, but based on the experience in Vietnam, it would not be a big leap to add that capability to their existing deployments.
The usage of WebSphere Portal provides a easy and extensible user interface primarily targeted at the PC, and with the addition of the Mobile Portal Accelerator (nee WebSphere Everyplace Mobile Portal Enable) to the existing Portal, that user interface can be extended to over 10,000 separate devices providing subscribers with an optimized experience for their device.
Where does this leave those Telcos who haven't made the leap to their own app store? In my opinion, they still have time to catch the wave, and certainly if they want to avoid the Apple effect and being reduces to a bit pipe provider, then they need to do something to add value in the eyes of the subscriber. Apple's model doesn't help them with that, but perhaps the other device specific app stores wont be so carrier unfriendly. I will see what I can find out on this issue and report back in another post.
Buy for now
* Once that customer has agreed to be a formal reference, I will share additional details in a future post.
If you want some background reading on App Stores, here are a couple of articles I would suggest:
- New York Times - Apple’s Game Changer, Downloading Now
- Telecom2.0 - Smartphones and App Stores: where is the Telecom Industry Being Led?