OneAPI to bind them.

There’s trouble in Mobile Earth.  Or so it appeared at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona last week.  Darkness is spreading throughout the networks, as the twin towers of Apple and Android continue to suck application developers into their empires.  But help was at hand.  Step forward those plucky little hobbits at the GSM Association.  Prior to the Conference their ivory burrow had been echoing to the sound of furry feet as they hastily put together the Wholesale Applications Community (WAC) to thwart those twin evils of the cellular world.

ARPU is precious.  Brand is even more precious.  As without that, you’re just a data pipe.  But both are fading.  The only thing that consumers appear to value these days is downloadable apps, and lots of them.  Last year at MWC, every operator was busy launching their own Apps Store.  A year on, the cellular shires have realised fighting alone didn’t work, so they’ve banded together to pit their combined forces against the dark empire.

It’s an odd alliance, and probably one that is doomed to failure. 

The Wholesale Applications Community is an alliance of twenty four operators, along with Sony-Ericsson, LG and Samsung (a.k.a the handset vendors who don’t have their own high profile apps stores).  This fighting force has been assembled by the GSMA to develop an open platform to deliver applications to their users.  Or presumably those users who don’t own an Apple, Android or Nokia handset.  Essentially, it’s all about supporting widgets, which isn’t a bad thing, by building on the JIL and OMTP BONDI standards. 

I’m assuming that JIL and OMTP think it’s a good idea, as it gets them into more devices, but neither were excited enough to issue a press release.  For that we had to rely on the GSMA.  They waxed lyrical about the way it was completely in line with their principles, and leveraged the work they had already done on OneAPI, which also got its own release.  I’ve always been a bit sceptical about OneAPI, as I don’t see why compelling mobile applications needs to know much about the network.  The good old wired internet seems to have done quite well without a similar knowledge of the ISPs and the grotty last mile of cable.

Which brings me back to that question of doom.  For that I’d like to digress into a brief discussion on jobs and hiring.  Not the sort you and I hanker for, but the rather elegant theories of Clayton Christensen at the Harvard Business School.  If you’ve not read his books, I’d recommend them.  He highlights the distinction between the world where marketeers think they know what consumers want, and what consumers actually do.  In his world, consumers have jobs that need to be done, like constructively wasting their time, or amusing their friends.  Hence they hire a service to fulfil that job – in this case, downloading an app from the iPhone store.  Business models that are successful work on the premise of understanding the job that the consumer needs to do.

My concern with the Wholesale Applications Community is that it doesn’t do that.  Instead it looks at how it can imitate a competitor without understanding the consumer’s job requirements.  Hence I suspect it may quietly die.  To see why, we need to look more deeply into the Apple and Android models.

What most analysts and commentators seem to ignore the fact that Apple didn’t invent the Apps Store model.  Credit to that goes to NTT DoCoMo in Japan, who put all of the pieces in place when they launched their i-mode service back in 1999 (yes, that was back in the last century).  They realised that if everything was going to work they needed to own the handset, the protocols, the application platform, the interfaces, the network, an equitable revenue split with the application developers and a light touch control of the applications themselves.  In other words, you need to own everything in the chain.  A number of European operators tried to bring the i-mode model to Europe, but broke it by trying to change key parts of the model, breaking that end to end ownership.  Apple’s bright idea was to realise that there was one part of the end-to-end chain which you could remove without breaking the model, which was the network pipe.  Their genius was to use the brand awareness they’d already built with the iPod to persuade the operators to let them own every other part of the model.  The rest is history.

i-mode is still going strong in Japan, with 48 million users and growing.  This should be a source of concern for operators, as it suggests that if the Western public behaves in the same way, they’re not going to get bored with their Apples and Androids and switch to something else.

Rather than relying on the hobbits to pull WAC together, what the industry needs is some real wizardry.  At Barcelona, that came in the form of Tadashi Onodera, president and chairman of Japanese operator KDDI.   KDDI don’t support i-mode, having gone down a 3G route, but they do duplicate the end to end control with their iida phones and services.  What Onodera-san was talking about was differential data pricing on an IP network.

Differential data pricing is about being a much smarter pipe, where an operator finds ways to justify billing differently for different data usage.  On a very basic level, my network does that today.  They charge me around 25 millipence for each SMS character I send, but only 4 nanopence for the same byte of internet data.  Which makes SMS data about six million times more expensive than internet data. 

KDDI don’t see why there should be a binary pricing structure, but instead believe that specific value should be assigned to different data usage.  So far, that’s a policy that’s noticeably absent from Western networks.  The Kindle is one example of how it can be done, but the fact that it is still largely tethered to a few U.S. networks illustrates how alien the concept is.  Which is a shame, as without that kind of thinking, flat rate is going to be a very heavy cross to bear, whether or not WAC works.

So the Wholesale Applications Community may just be a reality avoidance strategy that deflects from the more important underlying issues.  The whole thing is aimed to be complete in 12 months, just in time to announce it at Mobile World Congress 2011.  Or do I already hear those furry feet scampering round their ivory burrow looking for a next year’s new initiative?