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The False Promise of Mobile App Unity

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The Wholesale Applications Community (WAC) said last week that it expects to have a platform ready by next February that will enable developers to write a single application and sell it through multiple carriers and storefronts. As great as that concept sounds, it’s a strategy that’s doomed to fail.

WAC, an alliance of two dozen of the world’s most powerful carriers and handset manufacturers, emerged earlier this year with a plan to compete against Apple’s App Store by uniting the fragmented world of mobile applications. The group aims to create a standards-based approach to mobile software development and deployment and create a one-stop shop through which developers could distribute their wares to multiple distribution channels.

While that sounds like a noble objective, WAC’s motive is the bottom line, as Kevin over at GigaOM wrote last week. Network operators and phone makers are understandably trying to grab a slice of the ever-expanding mobile app pie, which currently belongs primarily to developers and app-store operators.

There’s no question that the mobile application space (and mobile data in general) is plagued by siloed operating systems and app stores. Developers looking to target a broad swath of users around the world must not only build apps for the iPhone (which remains just a small fraction of the overall handset market) but also for Android and Symbian. And because feature phones still represent the vast majority of handsets, developers are increasingly building Java versions of their offerings.

But herding all those cats will be exceedingly difficult. Carriers have a well-earned reputation for not playing nice with each other, and they employ a host of different operating systems. That fact will only be exacerbated as operators like Verizon Wireless – which, incidentally, is a WAC member — attempt to build their own branded platforms and app stores, further splintering the market and forcing developers to create multiple versions of apps within a specific operating system.

Just as importantly, some operating systems are becoming fragmented themselves. Microsoft for years has struggled with the splintering of Windows Mobile, and Google’s Android has become so fragmented some onlookers have suggested that the Open Handset Alliance has been a disappointment. And it’s not like carriers have ever been any good at selling apps anyway – a fact that becomes more apparent by the day with the rise of Apple’s App Store and Google’s Android Market.

Those problems have given rise to a small army of startups that help developers address multiple operating systems. Appcelerator, a Mountain View, Calif.-based firm, customizes applications for Android, the iPhone and iPad, and recently announced upcoming support for BlackBerry. The U.K. firm mxData offers similar services but also supports Java and Windows Mobile. And a host of other players are coming to market with offerings that customize apps for multiple platforms.

Unlike those startups, though, the WAC is rife with conflicts of interest. Verizon Wireless, for instance, would surely prefer to get an exclusive grip on some top-notch apps for its own branded store rather than help competing competitors carry the same titles. Samsung is behind WAC at the same time it’s pushing its own mobile app platform, Bada.

The concept of “write once, run anywhere” has been around a long time in mobile. But as anyone who’s studied the history of J2ME knows, it’s a concept that has never come close to being realized. Fragmentation will probably only increase in the near future as manufacturers churn out new smartphones and as new operating systems come to market. The industry can – and should – take steps to address those problems, but the WAC’s loft goal of giving developers a single point of widespread distribution for their wares is one that simply won’t be achieved.

Question of the week

Does the WAC have any chance of reaching mobile application unity?