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Do We Need a Global App Store for Feature Phones?

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The Wholesale Applications Community, an industry group looking to “increase the overall market for mobile applications,” today announced it now has 48 member companies, up from 16 prior to today, and the first version of its developer specification. Notable and new members to the group include mobile operators such as China Unicom, Hutchison 3 Group, and KDDI, plus Opera, the third-party mobile browser company. The initial spec released today is roughly a month ahead of schedule for the WAC, and is based strongly on the Joint Innovation Labs assets the WAC acquired earlier this year.

The Wholesale Applications Community was first announced earlier this year at the Mobile World Congress event. We covered the news of this largely carrier-based organization back then, and after browsing a PDF of the specification today, I’m inclined to agree with my colleague Colin Gibbs. Back in February, he noted that “the WAC is whack(ed)” and an industry standard approach meant to reduce app fragmentation doesn’t stand a chance to compete against the growing platform ecosystems:

The concept of “write once, run anywhere” is a compelling one, but it’s one that’s never come close to being realized in mobile. And thanks to the proliferation of new smartphone operating systems and an ever-increasing number of superphones on the market, there’s no chance the WAC will be able to change that.

So why might the WAC be a lost cause in a world of smartphones and application-specific mobile app stores:

Got widgets? While the new WAC specification for developers is only in its initial state, at this point, it’s not really about applications; it’s about widgets. Apple (s aapl) doesn’t currently allow widgets in iOS and if it ever does, such widgets would inevitably come from the iTunes App Store. Google Android (s goog) devices already support widgets, as do Nokia’s Symbian (s nok) devices. All three of these companies already have what the WAC offers and then some, since they each provide mobile app stores as well. The WAC indicates that its app store is targeting an audience of over 3 billion, which tells me it’s looking for widgets on feature phones. At some point, that market will dry up due to smartphone adoption.

Handset makers want to be different, not the same. Although Samsung and LG are WAC members, notably absent are handset makers Apple, Nokia, RIM (s rimm), Motorola (s mot), HTC and Sony Ericsson (s sne) (s eson). This further emphasizes the feature phone mindset of the WAC, but raises another important point. Every one of these non-member handset makers are striving to differentiate themselves through hardware and software. If the Samsungs and LGs of the world plan to compete against each other, why participate in a shared ecosystem that can be found on competing devices? Put another way: If a consumer can get an LG phone with the same widgets as a Samsung phone, how does LG compete against Samsung in this situation?

Carriers working together? Nah. A central key to success for the WAC is getting carriers to work together by agreeing on application standards for handsets that are built by others. Call me skeptical, but when have mobile operators ever agreed on anything that doesn’t benefit only themselves as business entities? Look at CDMA vs GSM, LTE vs WiMAX or unlimited vs tiered mobile data plans for some quick examples. If those don’t convince you, just ask yourself how many carrier-branded solutions we need to watch digital media on our handsets. They all do the same thing as free or third-party apps, but carriers offer such services as value-add subscriptions to boost revenues.

Standards already exist. The new WAC developer spec is completely based on existing standards, such as HTML, CSS and JavaScript. These standards are already usable by devices running webOS (s hpq), Android, and Symbian^3, to name a few platforms. Reshaping existing standards is akin to saying the Java (s orcl) approach of “write once, run anywhere” isn’t really a run-anywhere technology, but it can be if the WAC standards are followed. Between Java and cross-platform frameworks such as Nokia’s Qt, not to mention current and future standards like HTML and HTML5, is there really a need for more standards simply because some in the industry missed out on the app store explosion?

From a developer’s standpoint, I see what the WAC could offer in the future: a Utopian scenario allowing devs to write software once and have it work across multiple devices on different carrier networks around the world. But such devices are limited to feature phones, which are getting supplanted by smartphones, whose users are far more likely to click and buy full-featured apps in addition to widgets. Sure there’s still plenty of money to be made from feature phones if you’re a widget developer, but you don’t need the WAC to earn a buck from such efforts, and GetJar, the world’s second biggest app store that has already delivered over a billion mobile app downloads, can already host your app. Knowing that, you tell me who’s whacked when members are contributing up to €300,000 ($419,612 USD) a year for WAC membership.

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Image courtesy Flickr user Horia Varlan.

2 Responses to “Do We Need a Global App Store for Feature Phones?”

  1. Found it to be a nice thought provoking article, and it poses some questions which we might take a stab at.

    The question of why have a standard when you want to differentiate. Well, the way I look at it is, the standards provide the common minimal feature-set which helps in creating a hopefully useful bunch of apps that are truly write-once, provided they limit themselves to using functionality exposed only by WAC specs. However, for sake of differentiation, handset vendors would continue to have an evolving set of extra features not available via WAC, but possibly only via Native API’s, or via J2ME / BREW etc. WAC just aims to bring the bar down for app-developers to quickly contribute to volume of apps, without having to worry about fragmentation, and with the hope of being able to reach a large audience.

    IMHO, there is another benefit of WAC, and that is the ability to have a unique offering in the operator app-store, and help them differentiate themselves from handset-vendor / independent app-stores. Of course, in theory, nothing stops them from also adopting WAC as an option, and this element of (potential) differentiation, goes way in a whiff.

    Do agree with your assessment that once the Smartphones become affordable enough, and I believe this is happening sooner than some may like or believe, the focus may very-well shift back to native APIs. Personally, I prefer a native app anyday over a widget or a j2me app, if they offer similar functionalities.

    Another important point about Widgets or Web-Apps is that, with the Unlimited plans vanishing, and the move to tiered plans, any content-rich Widgets will have a degraded value proposition, and add the latency factor to it.

    So over all, I do share the overall feeling, and don’t feel so warm-n-fuzzy about WAC. Let’s see.