mobile applications, technologies

The WAC app attack

Will WAC find its balance on a single platform?

The new announcement of ‘WAC’ (Wholesale Applications Community) triggers mixed emotions.

While its over-all mission remains admirable – to accelerate the delivery of an open standard applications platform – does the official formation of a company through a merger with the Joint Innovation Lab (JIL), together with the assembly of a Board and Business Model amount to much that wasn’t known already?

First off, what of its previous incarnation? The Wholesale Applications Community was originally brought together in February, pre-acronym, under the umbrella of the global mobile network trade body, the GSMA. There appears to be no mention of the body in formal press around WAC’s launch, although the publicity seems to be led by GSMA affiliated folk.  Its extraction into its own company may simply be the easiest way to assemble the group, possibly for tax purposes given it will be a not-for-profit body which charges a levy on every application sale, to cover its costs.  But the evolution isn’t the clearest.

This new WAC dawn could equally suggest the realisation of unnecessarily disparate work across the BONDI, JIL and One API initiatives – as suspected before. Although in February it was promised that the Wholesale Applications Community would incorporate all of these, they now appear set to be housed under a single roof.

Yet for all the new unity, use of the word ‘accelerate’ could provoke an arched eyebrow.

While organising geographically and commercially disparate stakeholders presents obvious challenges, rollout is not likely to arrive at the speed of light. In fact, the delivery of useable, standardised material for developers might arrive close on a year after the group was first announced at Mobile World Congress, February 2010. Over this time Apple and Android’s grip on the applications market will continue to tighten.

What will be the state of the market when WAC has had time to percolate with applications (let’s presume that it will), eighteen months to two years down the line from now? How much further ahead will Apple and Android be then? Could the humble mobile browser even be making a comeback, with an improved experience to rival the dominance of apps?

The WAC Attraction

Analysts in the GSMA’s writeup of the news point out that consolidation of the route to market and the aggregation of mobile storefronts will be the biggest draw for developers. That’s assuming intuitive process and a one-size fits all approach is feasible and works in practice, as well as looking impressive on paper. This is undoubtedly an attractive proposition.

Attractive too is the potential breadth of audience; that WAC applications can reach wider than smartphones and into lower end devices. On a webinar, interim WAC CEO Tim Raby said: “We want to support as large a population of devices as we can in the portfolios of operators and we have the support of many device vendors.”

Addressing lower end devices in developed markets, where Java applications tried and largely failed, is an interesting tactic. However, it’s difficult to envisage considerable traction in trying to sell mobile applications to low users who have demonstrated little interest in mobile applications and are likely a tougher sell.

Emerging markets, on the other hand, have been amongst the most innovative in their use of basic mobile voice and data solutions. Adding an application element could create further practical opportunities if geographical capacity allows.

For all this, will it really be attractive enough to divert developers’ and, as importantly, brands’ fixation from the mainstream established Apple and Android channels?  These are after all, channels which they know work, rather than channels they could be taking a gamble on.

Payforit and mPayments to cash in?

Returning to an optimistic outlook, another boon could be found in mobile payments and specifically Payforit, the UK standard mobile internet payment platform, which bills mobile subscribers’ phone contracts and deducts from prepay tariffs. With a unified and trusted mobile storefront populated by desirable applications that consumers are willing to make micropayments for, the effect could be positive.

But again, by the time this all comes to pass, it could be a case of playing catch up. Google’s in-application carrier billing is currently receiving another push in the US, with promises of an iTunes-like ease of payment experience in Android applications, and billing conducted via the subscriber’s mobile contract.

Sticky details

Outstanding issues include the business model for developers distributing free applications and their revenue share. Developers will set their application price and receive a share of the transaction defined on an operator-by-operator basis (but thought to hold to the regular 30/70 developer / mobile network ratio). This is designed to ensure revenue shares remain competitive. As a not-for-profit organisation, WAC will receive a small transaction fee for each application to cover its operating costs.

Will free or ad-funded applications be excluded from the WAC market? Or how will they fit? And how about in-app advertising and freemium models? When will WAC look to incorporate key mobile network enablers such as location, behavioural tracking and user identification? Is it even possible to unify global operators on such technically intricate issues?

These issues will be addressed in future releases, possibly in a ‘cross that bridge when we come to it’ approach.

November: fireworks or damp squib?

WAC is not wanting for serious challenges, but it will certainly take its time. With JIL fully integrated into the operation by September, the next step is the release of its initial specification and Software Development Kit components to developers in November.

Once this WAC material has been produced and disseminated across the relevant developer communities, public bluster can be shelved in favour of informed assessments and detailed roadmaps.

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