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Summary:

Mobile operators big ambition to expose a common global API to developers has evaporated, but carriers are still searching for that holy grail — relevance to the developer community. Carriers are signing their own API deals and launching new standards efforts, but ultimately they’ll be disappointed.

Choices decisions arrows

The Wholesale Application Community may be defunct, but some hope of accomplishing WAC’s original mission – building a common set of mobile network APIs for developers – seems to remain. Other standards bodies are trying to pick up where WAC left off, and individual carriers are looking at private companies to do the work they couldn’t accomplish as a group.

Leap Wireless, which operates the Cricket Communications prepaid carrier, has tapped Aepona to provide it with a managed API platform. Belfast, U.K.,-based Aepona plays two roles. First, it simplifies carriers’ complex and proprietary network APIs for billing, location and presence and exposes them to developers in a much easier-to-use format. Second, it handles the nitty-gritty of developer recruitment, relations and support – tasks that are not exactly the carriers’ forte.

On the standards front, the Alliance for Telecommunications Industry Solutions (ATIS) has grabbed the baton dropped by WAC and is developing its own network API framework that would allow HTML5 developers and device makers to dive into the hitherto murky depths of carriers’ core networks. ATIS, however, is a North American standards development group. Most U.S. and Canadian carriers are members, as are the big global handset and infrastructure ventures, so its recommendations don’t carry much weight over the oceans.

Herein lies the problem: while WAC’s mandate was truly global – its membership was comprised of 4 dozen operators from every part of the world – the efforts emerging to replace it are fragmented. And one of the biggest reasons (among many) developers don’t want to work with operators is the problem of fragmentation: signing separate deals with individual carriers and developing to each operator’s own technical standards and APIs.

WAC was a noble idea, but as Locaid CEO Rip Gerber wrote in a recent GigaOM contributed piece, operators are probably the most ill-equipped creatures to turn such a grand plan into reality. Ultimately WAC failed, Gerber said, for three reasons:  carrier collectives move slowly — even when the stakes are high – building API’s simply isn’t in carriers’ DNA and because WAC ultimately had neither the mandate, nor the wherewithal, to bring those APIs to market.

Gerber’s answer is to hand the work over to API specialists like his own location interface company Locaid, Apigee or Aepona. These companies obviously are better equipped than any carrier consortium to do the technical work as well as deal with the finicky developer community But the problem of fragmentation remains. Half a dozen API companies means half a dozen platforms with which developers must deal.

Kudos to ATIS for taking another crack at seemingly insurmountable problem, but it’s just one standards development body of dozens worldwide. The GSMA is also taking up WAC’s slack working with Apigee as part of its One API initiative. Canadian carriers are working with Apigee’s competitor Aepona. If all of this standards work results in a dozen different API frameworks, we don’t really have a standard at all.

I agree with Gerber that half a dozen simplified API frameworks are better than 200 complex ones. And some developers would be able to work within those divisions. In the unlikely event U.S. carriers adopted a unified API framework, it could be attractive to any developer building apps primarily for the domestic market.

Even if a carrier like Leap finds itself on an API island, it can still put those interfaces to work. Cricket has enjoyed quite a bit of success with its white-label Muve music subscription service. Using Aepona’s simplified APIs, it would be much easier for a Leap to recruit new content suppliers and launch their services.

But those kind of tight-knit carrier-developer relationships are a rarity and the tiniest fraction of the overall applications market. What carriers dream of doing is becoming part of the global app distribution chain, taking a cut of every app billed to their customers or charging fees to access their other APIs. Developers simply aren’t going to play that carrier game if they can get much wider exposure – and less headache – working with Apple, Google and Microsoft. Without some semblance of a common API, that carrier dream is never going to happen.

Featured photo courtesy of Shutterstock user Chantall; Puzzle image courtesy Flickr user Horia Varlan.

  1. Great post, Kevin. You’ve really hit the nail on the head. The gap between carriers and developers must be bridged by standardized REST APIs to provide developers with access to build their own sophisticated applications that can operate on the carrier level.

    Developers don’t want to have to make deals with every single carrier, and carriers work way too slow to keep up with developers.

    At 2600hz, we provide the APIs to allow developers to manipulate and build advanced carrier-grade functionalities, while we take care of the complexities of billing, taxations and interoperability. It’s not an API management service — it simply gives developers open access to a carrier-grade infrastructure platform that’s basically just a huge API stack. Now, developers have the ability to manipulate and control any part of that stack.

  2. Flavia de San Juan Friday, August 17, 2012

    I think it has been missed that Apigee actually has taken over the technical responsibility to maintain and keep developing WAC’s API’s.

    1. Hi Flavia,

      I did report that in the first news post on WAC. I overlooked it in this post mainly because the OneAPI/GSMA/Apigee initiative is now just one of many competing API efforts. The WAC was supposed to be a unified effort among the world’s major carriers. Don’t get me wrong, I think Apigee is a very cool company. While its accurate that Apigee took over the WAC’s technical work the potential impact of it is now much less.

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