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Mobile application development programs: Operators learn the ropes

Establishing mobile application development programs may seem essential for mobile operators, but they must include four essential elements to attract app developers -- including application frameworks designed to operate across operators’ boundaries and clear revenue models.

It’s fair to say that the most important event in the evolution of mobile services has been the iPhone. Not only did this device almost single-handedly redefine the expectations of the mobile market (shifting it decisively toward data services), but it established an application-based service framework. The result was that for the first time, many in the industry thought about the application developer as a new player in the service space.

Early programs must focus on developing a framework for application development, not on ‘killer applications’ themselves.

Tom Nolle, President, CIMI Corp.

The need to embrace a broader service ecosystem that extends to application developers is complicating an already difficult operator transition to a new online-dominated business model. Given the iPhone’s application success, it’s not surprising that there’s been a rush to establish mobile application development programs for developers at every level of the mobile space. It’s also not a surprise that operators haven’t gained the successes with their developer programs that Apple and later Google Android did. A close examination of the developer programs of the handset vendors illustrates that there are some essential elements needed for program success -- elements that have often been missed up to now. But there are increasing indications that operators and network vendors are catching on and catching up.

Developer programs and application-based services are a way for network operators to address opportunities that develop in a short consumer-oriented sales cycle while at the same time retaining their model of building networks from long-lived capital assets. Operators have already learned some major lessons about developer programs, but they should continue to be mindful of the essentials as the market develops.

  1. Early programs must focus on developing a framework for application development, not on “killer applications” themselves. When an operator deploys a very narrow set of developer tools and combines them with operator-owned applications, the developer community has little to leverage in order to create applications that will profit the developer. Developers also have considerable concern that the operator itself will be a future competitor rather than a partner. A broad program that offers developers a wide range of service/application alternatives is a better approach, and operator-provided applications should be more specimens or examples than actual commercial options. In fact, it would be best if these applications could be extended and leveraged freely by developers.
  2. Build a true developer ecosystem within your program. Most early operator programs have released developer toolkits in the form of application program interfaces (APIs) and specifications, and little more. While this is sufficient to support development, it’s not sufficient to induce it. Application developers will build using what is available, so making the program highly visible, easy to join, and easy to build under is critical. This is likely the driver behind Alcatel-Lucent’s purchase of ProgrammableWeb, a repository of useful API data for developers that can be used to promote Alcatel-Lucent’s own APIs and other APIs and tools that could support Alcatel-Lucent’s Open API service.
  3. Establish developer programs in a way that facilitates their use across service provider boundaries. The goals of Alcatel-Lucent's Open API service point to the issue of cross-provider services. Mobile services are sold competitively, and many operators are likely to serve a specific market area and even offer common handsets. If a developer has to market an application based on geography or handset type, the fact that the real market is fragmented by the provider may make any network developer program unattractive. How many programs can a developer reasonably support? Would all of the programs evolve in a common direction and at a common pace? To this end, the Wholesale Application Community is an operator effort to create a neutral and standard framework for developers, and keeping this program moving is absolutely critical
  4. Establish a clear revenue model for developers to encourage app development. Clearly the administration of the developer-operator relationship is another major factor in the success of mobile application development programs. Few application developers will work to create exciting applications without any hope of future compensation. To that point, assessing how compensation will develop, estimating the total potential, and collecting what's owed will be on the developer’s mind from the beginning. For handset applications, the revenue model tends to be pretty simple: Sell the application.

But for many network operator or network equipment vendor programs, revenue will likely come from ongoing usage fees. It may be hard to estimate those fees, and thus hard for the developer to see the financial end-game. In fact, it may be hard to estimate how incremental carrier service features used by developers should be priced and billed, which means that developers might fear cash-flow issues. Operators have probably made the most progress in this area, and most programs have at least basic guidance on how the money will flow when applications are sold and used.

Mobile application developer programs require strong marketing efforts to compete

All of these points will defuse barriers to developer participation in operator programs but they won’t make those programs competitive with highly visible programs from Apple or Google. To do that, operators and equipment vendors need to promote their developer programs and the applications they produce heavily. Only effective marketing will make the applications and services that these programs produce visible and valuable to consumers. Without that, the best-structured and best-administered developer programs will ultimately lose support and credibility.

About the author: Tom Nolle is president of CIMI Corporation, a strategic consulting firm specializing in telecommunications and data communications since 1982. He is the publisher of Netwatcher, a journal addressing advanced telecommunications strategy issues. Check out his networking blog, Uncommon Wisdom.

This was last published in February 2011

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