It’s been a busy week on App Stores with significant announcements from no fewer than Vodafone, Sun and Qualcomm, plus an analyst update on the Ovi Store from Nokia.
The scope of the APIs is currently:
- location – mainly of a individual person but it may be possible to get bulk data as would be used for traffic measurement or in a site such as CitySense
- billing – either for a sale through its forthcoming App Stores, or sale within an application (new levels of a game etc).
On their own, these obviously don’t make an App Store, but Vodafone was clear that this is part 1 of a bigger project and the next phase will involve the launch of “a number of” App Stores to serve the different markets where Vodafone operates.
The scope of the APIs will expand and, although there were no announcements, there are some obvious areas such as messaging, social networking and navigation (Vodafone owns Wayfinder).
The announcement was pitched in terms of enabling developers to write for and then sell to Vodafone’s 289m customers. While that is an impressive number, it’s clearly not a good idea for each operator to do its own APIs, and this work is part of the Joint Innovation Lab – a collaborative project with Verizon, China Mobile and Softbank in Japan – who have a combined user base of over 1bn.
Vodafone also says it is working closely with the GSMA in the recently announced OpenAPI initiative, but that it needed to go to market now rather than wait for the outcome of that initiative.
Playing the numbers game, Sun estimates that Java is in use by ~1bn users on several billion terminals - computers, mobile phones and other devices. As with all these estimates, though, this is no more than a veneer because Java (especially on mobile phones) has been allowed to become fragmented – the opposite of what it was supposed to be – and no single application could address that user base.
With that in mind Sun appears to be focusing first and foremost on Java and JavaFX for the PC desktop. And here the pitch is to enable developers to get direct to the desktop, bypassing “potentially hostile” browsers.
However, the volumes available on mobile are clearly also a large attraction for Sun, though mobile use of Java is the most fragmented and difficult area to serve properly.
Sun looks set to try to position itself in this area as a true independent, cross-platform player with scale that none of the others can match.
That may have some pull with developers but I’m not sure enough consumers know enough about Java for this positioning to work with them.
That means Sun will need to invest heavily in raising consumer awareness of its App Store, or will need to find a way to get it embedded on large numbers of devices. A further requirement will be to find a way of getting a link to the App Store into the millions of existing phones that already use Java.
None of those is easy or cheap to do.
Qualcomm has, through its BREW platform, been enabling mobile operators to sell applications into mobile phones since 2001. Along with Handango it was one of the pioneers of this and it has paid out $2bn to developers since then.
It has now evolved this system into its Plaza Suite, consisting of:
- Plaza Mobile Internet – a content management and delivery system for Widgets
- Plaza Retail – a complete infrastructure for operators to set up their own App Store
The pitch to mobile operators is all about having a system that copes with the complexities of running an app store, and dealing with a large array of suppliers and handset models. These include different software platforms, channels, retailers, languages, currencies and settlement options.
It has 3 main components.
First is Connection – the part that serves the developers, handset vendors and content providers who provide applications.
Second is the Management Center – where the mobile operator builds App Stores and fills them with applications. Here Qualcomm offers significant flexibility with segmentation, personalisation, bundles and promotions and analytics. A key part of the personalisation is to use a recommendation engine (technology from the acquisition of Xiam last year) to promote relevant apps to the user.
Third is the Storefront – the part that the end user sees. This offers operators the ability to set up branded store(s) with a consistent look and feel across devices, that can be managed and updated over the air.
The stores can be viewed in a browser or a widget and Qualcomm is also offering a Plaza handset client. Initially this is available for BREW / Java plus Blackberry, but there are plans to expand this to include Android later this year, and Symbian, Windows Mobile and Palm during 2010.
Qualcomm has done well to come to market with a fairly comprehensive system at the time when a large number of operators will be looking for an App Store. Most operators already have some aspects of what Plaza Retail provides running – for example – music downloads, but may not be able to scale those across other forms of content.
The main issues for Qualcomm in trying to take this out beyond its existing 60 or so BREW customers will be to serve the full variety of handset platforms quickly, and not to let operators’ earlier perceptions of BREW influence the discussions strongly.
Like Qualcomm, Nokia is majoring on recommendations as a differentiating factor. Unlike Qualcomm (at least for now), the Ovi Store will serve all types of content including music, ringtones, wallpapers, games and other applications. This addresses one key criticism of Nokia having different channels for games, music and other services.
Nokia has written a separate Ovi Store application for its S60 phones, but will use an evolved version of the widget system developed by the Widsets team on S40. These will be embedded on new phones, of course. And in order to make them available on existing phones, Nokia plans to make it so that the next time the user opens the existing Download application, it gets converted into the new App Store application.
Nokia said it will launch with 8 operator deals in place, and 20,000 items on the store for sale to 75 handset models.
The store supports operator billing, although operator billing may not support all price points on the store – so other billing options are also present, e.g. credit cards.
Developers set the prices and decide what billing mechanism to use. If they use operator billing, the operator takes a cut and the remaining revenue is split 70:30 in favour of the developer.
One criticism of S60 phones is the sheer number of questions, prompts and confirmations you need to respond to if you try to download something. Nokia has set the Ovi Store up so that these are heavily streamlined for an application bought through the store, aiming for single-click downloads.
Interestingly the Ovi Store supports ad-funded applications, but Nokia currently does not have big plans for using this, saying that the whole area is still rather experimental.
The Ovi Store looks to be a highly capable piece of infrastructure. In theory the Ovi Store could support non-Nokia phones and enable Nokia to compete directly with Plaza Retail. When asked about this Nokia said “no plans”.
Where’s the user in all of this?
It’s clear that users of non Apple or Blackberry phones will shortly face an array of App Store options and potential confusion. But actually this is no different from walking into a mall to buy a pair of jeans.
I expect we’ll fairly quickly see a lot of information surfacing about the quality of the different App Stores, the way they work, the prices across them and so on.
I also think that the recommendation side will start to become important quickly, and the quality of the recommendation algorithms will become an important success factor.
Without having tried the various Apps Stores, it’s obviously not possible to assess how good they are on this. But, from what’s come out so far, they’re generally set up with the retailer’s needs as the highest priority so that they can organise promotions, design categories, set up the “aisles” for good product placement, segment their user base and so on. i.e all the traditional retail functions for marketing and selling to your users.
So far so good. But users who have a bad, frustrating or disappointing experience with an App Store will tend not to visit it often or ever again. That means the recommendation engines may have only 3 or 4 visits per user as input before they have to work well enough to give users what they want. That’s a tall order.
So I think we’ll also need to see more functionality built in for the user, so that they can take control of the experience more. Things like RSS feeds (Apple has made a start on these), setting up your own categories of things you’re interested in, responding directly to recommendations (as you can with Pandora’s music service) and so on.