Summary:

France’s three big mobile operators are cooperating to put out a common API that mobile retail sites and apps can use to autofill customer data into a purchase screen. It’s a small achievement, but a notable one, considering operators past failures to lure in developers.

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Mobile carriers are like feral cats. Throw them in a bag and they’ll fight with one another rather than work together to escape. That attitude has been one of the biggest obstacles toward carriers coming together to offer a set of common network application programming interfaces (APIs) to developers. And that’s why developers have pretty much ignored the operators when they design their apps.

But there are signs that at least some carriers are willing to play nice with one another. In France, the big three national operators Orange, Bouygues Telecom and SFR have formed a consortium called YouConnect that exposes an API that allows m-commerce apps to auto-fill in purchase information (name, address, credit card, etc.) from carrier subscriber databases.

Developers don’t have to tap into three separate APIs. They don’t have to negotiate three separate business deals with each operator. They build to a single API and  they single set of revenue share terms.

Three carriers aren’t 400. Universal carrier APIs was the Wholesale Application Community’s goal before its inevitable demise, but those three carriers represent the vast majority of France’s mobile subscribers. So far YouConnect only has one partner, online overstock retailer Vente-Privee.com, but the consortium is bring on other e-commerce companies soon, according to Alcatel-Lucent, the vendor who manages YouConnect’s APIs.

Achieving a truly universal carrier API framework is going to take a lot of time, but that doesn’t mean that smaller groups of carriers can’t band together, said Laura Merling, Alcatel-Lucent SVP of application development platform and strategy. Country-wide cooperation in particular makes sense as there are many developers that are only thinking within the confines of national borders. Think regional retailers or national airlines and rail providers.

“You’re going to see earlier results with a more focused strategy,” Merling said. “Three other countries have already expressed interest in joining YouConnect.”

The Alliance of Telecommunications Industry Solution is another organization trying to come up with a set of core network APIs for developers. While I initially questioned whether ATIS could succeed where WAC failed, the Alliances’ marketing VP Lauren Laymen told me that the ATIS’s ambitions are much smaller – and far more realistic — than WAC’s. As a North American focused institution, ATIS isn’t trying to create a global API framework for consumer development. It’s trying to develop useful APIs for vertical business markets like healthcare and government, which don’t need to cross borders and span carriers as much as they need to access reliable and highly secure interfaces.

This week Alcatel-Lucent launched its own API consultancy and professional services business with the aim of helping carriers develop and manage common interfaces. Like API specialists Apigee, Aepona and Locaid, Alcatel-Lucent is yet another option in an increasingly fragmented carrier development market, though the Franco-American vendor has the advantage of actually building the network infrastructure it’s trying to expose to the outside world.

Merling, however, said that those separate companies aren’t necessarily working at cross purposes. No matter whom a carrier selects to manage its APIs, technically they’re all gravitating toward standards established by organizations like the Open Mobile Alliance. Alcatel-Lucent is already in discussions with U.S. operators – each of whom work with different API enablers — to develop frameworks like YouConnect, Merling said.

Phones image courtesy of Shutterstock user Reno Martin

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