Monday, April 6, 2009

The App Store Gold Rush

Describing the current flurry of announcements around app stores as anything but a gold rush would be an understatement. Driven by the wild (?) success that the Apple app store has seen, operators, online players, and device manufacturers are making a beeline to courting developers with promises of riches unseen ! With majors such as Nokia, Microsoft, RIM, Vodafone, Verizon, France Telecom, and China Mobile committing to either launch app stores and/or greater co-operation with developers, competition for the consumer's discretionary spending on mobile apps/content is only set to increase. And not to forget, the ubiquitous Google, with its Android Market, which appears to be seeing strong traction with the first wave of customers. However, lost in all this cacophony is the increasing fragmentation that is likely to set in once all these app stores are launched. While Apple has had a strong success with its version, however, a large portion of that success can be easily traced to the limited portfolio of its devices (all of two-iphone and ipod touch), however, the same cannot be said for other app store operators. Numbers are being bandied about on how Apple's store crossed, in two years, the number of apps that Microsoft took over 9 years to build. What is clearly overlooked in this apples and oranges comparison is how apps built for a windows Mobile platform are meant to work on a much wider range of handset portfolio. Ensuring mass customization by using a narrow range of devices, as in the case of Apple, significantly reduces development, porting, and testing costs for a developer.

While development costs are one aspect of the complexity that having multiple platforms entails, a larger problem would be to encourage adoption beyond the early adopters and uber geeks, for creating an efficient billing platform is certainly no stroll in the park. Most of these app stores have exhibited an intention of cutting off the mobile operator from the picture, thereby complicating the billing mechanisms, and consequently risk alienating significant portion of the user base that would prefer the convenience of tying all mobile-based purchases to the carrier bill. And this is where mobile operators believe they can drive home their advantage. The announcements from China Mobile and Verizon need to be seen in this light. AT&T as well appears to be taking early steps with its App Beta program. In Europe, Orange too appears to be hitching the app store bandwagon.

The success that Apple has seen can be clearly traced to the virtually complete control that it has of the value chain; right from the device to the software, to the iTunes interface, to the payment mechanism, and in some cases, down to the operator (thro' exclusive agreements) ! However, the same is not really viable/practicable for any of the other new entrants. Fragmentation is a reality that they have to adapt to. And consequently, they might never be in the same league of the Apple app store. And more importantly, whether they like it or not, it will indeed be very challenging for either content companies or device vendors to create alternate mobile payment gateways bypassing the carrier billing.

The app store phenomenon will likely act as the final nail in the coffin for operator walled gardens. It remains to be seen how operators ensure they can find their collective bearings and work towards creating an ecosystem that offers value to the customer and monies to their pockets !

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