What started out as a far-fetched dream — to create a unified app platform that can run on any device, operating system and carrier — is finally coming to life, though its long-term prospects are still far from certain. Smart Communications, a wireless carrier in the Philippines, today unveiled the Netphone, an Android-based smartphone that will be the first to support the Wholesale Applications Community platform pushed by major carriers such as AT&T (s t), Verizon Wireless (s vz), Deutsche Telekom and NTT Docomo, and is also backed by hardware manufacturers.
While the reach of the phone is limited initially, it is first chance to see how the WAC project fares in real life. The WAC grabbed attention at its launch a year ago because of its promise to let developers write a program once and have it run on any carrier, device or operating system. The announcement was met with skepticism because of the technical challenges of building a platform that can span so many devices and OSes and can unite the disparate interests of competing carriers.
This first example likely won’t dispel many concerns. It’s when we see more phones from other carriers able to easily run the same programs that we’ll see if the promise of WAC comes to life. But for now, it’s a sign that the platform is still moving forward.
The Smart Netphone will be powered by Google Android 2.2 (s goog) with the WAC software managed by Red Bend Software, independent of the manufacturer’s hardware. The WAC platform will allow users to access widgets pushed directly through Red Bend. Smart and Red Bend plan to show off the Netphone and WAC widgets at Mobile World Congress next week.
The cards are still stacked against the WAC platform. There’s a lot of device fragmentation issues to deal with and plenty of competition from more app markets. And as web apps become more robust, it’s unclear if there’s a need for a system of delivering universal widgets when the browser can be that mechanism. And as Android devices move down market, it will only raise more questions about the need for WAC. I’m sure we’ll hear more in the coming weeks and months but this still seems like a tough sell.
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