By Barry Levine / CIO Today. Updated February 17, 2010.
With key mobile platforms and their application communities rapidly moving forward, a group of wireless carriers and device makers have decided to simplify. On Monday, two dozen of the largest telecom companies announced plans to create an open platform called the Wholesale Applications Community (WAC).
The companies include AT&T, China Mobile, Orange, Verizon Wireless, Sprint Nextel, LG Electronics, Samsung, Deustsche Telekom, NTT DoCoMo, Vodafone and Sony Ericsson. The idea is to create a platform that will allow developers to create an application once and then have it run on any device supporting that platform.
3 Billion Users
This "write-once, deploy many" approach has been attempted for years by various players and technologies, including Java, web standards, and most recently Adobe System's AIR/Flash. They want applications to work similarly on different operating systems and devices, which is challenging enough for desktop or laptop computers. Mobile devices, with a wide range of displays, functionalities and connection speeds, are even more of a challenge.
Apple, which makes its devices and operating systems, has been most successful in having apps work on the devices in its ecosystem, and the growing importance of its App Store is a key target of the new alliance. RIM is in a similar, enviable position. Some other operating systems, such as Android and Windows Mobile, work across devices from many manufacturers.
The prize could be big. As WAC notes on its web site, the customer base is potentially more than three billion users who are customers of the participating companies.
To reach those billions, WAC said "the alliance will provide a single gateway for developers to access a vast potential customer base." It added that the gateway will use existing technical standards so developers can access network capabilities through application programming interfaces (APIs).
One version of an application, the alliance said, will be able to run on a variety of devices using a variety of operating systems, including Android, Windows and Symbian. Initially, JIL and BONDI standards will be used to evolve a common standard within 12 months. BONDI is an open-source industry collaboration for widget and web technologies, and JIL is the Java Intermediate Language. The alliance said it intends to work with web-standards body W3C to evolve a "common standard."
Standardizing AC Chargers
But some industry observers think the alliance has a long way to go. Al Hilwa, program director at industry research firm IDC, said he doubts the WAC effort "will have any impact."
In fact, he pointed out, "these folks haven't even figured out how to standardize their AC chargers."
At this point, he noted, the effort is "largely a declaration of intent." Hilwa said that, from a historical perspective, WAC "has to be seen in the context of a power shift toward platform makers" such as Google, Microsoft, RIM and Apple from the carriers and pure-play device makers.
Adobe, which announced this week a new version of its AIR platform and a new Flash player for mobile devices, is also trying to solve this puzzle. Hilwa pointed out that Adobe's technology is derived from the web, and some other observers are suggesting that any cross-platform solution will most likely use cross-platform web tech.
Hilwa said eventually we'll see a "Darwinian process" that leaves no more than four or five mobile platforms, which might whittle down to two or three over time.