For a long time operators were in control. They controlled the distribution channel and billing mechanisms that developers needed to use to make money. This allowed operators to get away with implementing strict and inconsistent acceptance criteria for apps (think Symbian Signed and Java Verified) and waiting months to pay developers through operator billing channels. Not only that but operators often made developers feel like they are privileged to be allowed to engage with an operator.
The control, however, has shifted in favour of the developers. Operators now have very little control over developers who are now embracing the distribution channels and monetization options offered by Apple and Google. Now the developers are in control operators are losing revenue through distribution and premium SMS billing channels. Developers want operators to just be a dumb pipe and provide them with a reliable data connection.
One of the challenges for operators is how do they provide an attractive proposition to developers if it is within a fragmented “walled garden?” Operators have historically offered developers an opportunity within their own customer base and this provides not only a limited user base for developers but introduces complexity within an app. Developers need to provide an app that behaves differently depending on the customer. This is not something they need to think about in the Google and Apple worlds.
So, how can operators attract developer mindshare and monetize the opportunity presented by apps and services?
I predict that operators will move away from the “walled garden” approach and offer opportunities across any platform and operator. Operators will acquire in app payment providers that work across all operators but give their developers a “premium” service through their own network. By offering a simple operator billing option for app users to pay for items more money is likely to be spent and developers will see the value being added.
Operators will acquire social mobile app services that work within any operator but provide premium features on their own network. For example, Vodafone customers could invite and interact with other Vodafone customers in the same vain as the tight integration Facebook provides for apps now.
This will allow operators to capitalize on the revenues generated by app developers and offer developers a reason to know who the operator is and want to engage with them in other ways. Once you know an operator is increasing your bottom line you will want to explore other business options with them.
At MWC Vodafone were talking about the “Rich Communication Suite - Enhanced” technology that allows developers to share data across devices through a unified SDK. They explain that this will be available across different operators and devices however the Joynus web site is quite sparse on details of operators and supported devices right now.
This appears to be the right direction, a cross platform, cross operator development kit allowing developers to do some pretty nifty stuff with their app (see the demos here). However, like many GSMA led initiatives before it, there is still a distinct lack of buy in from operators worldwide and this suggests that operators need to go it alone in order to attract developers.
So, operators, forget BONDI, WAC and LiMO, break free from operator led initiatives and forge your own path into the apps world.
Acquire a payments solution with an existing developer base and engage with those developers to explain why you add value through operator billing.
Provide access to tighter integration between your customers to give phone users and app developers a reason to know that they are using your network. Make it social, whether through a partnership with Facebook, something like the RCS-e initiative or by acquiring a company like Papaya Mobile.
There is a future for operators working with developers and understanding what developers want and providing them an excellent service is the way to attract that valuable mindshare.