Vodafone will open up its network interfaces to developers in a bid to create an app store for web applications that run across a variety of mobile platforms.
The operator announced the move on Tuesday, saying in a statement that releasing its network application programming interfaces (APIs) would "stimulate a new generation of mobile internet applications by providing internet service developers with a single point of access to Vodafone's global customer base".
"Vodafone is making these changes to make it easier for third parties to develop attractive new services as well as bill and support our customers through our network capabilities in all markets," Vodafone's chief executive Vittorio Colao said in the company's statement. "By giving them simple access to our global customer base and network assets, such as direct billing and location awareness, we will help them to make more money while providing our customers with the innovative services that they want."
The web applications, which will take the form of widgets, will work across different mobile platforms due to a "new layer of management technology based on service-oriented architecture", Vodafone said in its statement.
The first APIs to be released will cover location and billing and will come out this summer in a software development kit (SDK) provided by the Joint Innovation Lab (JIL). The initiative was set up by Vodafone, China Mobile and Japan's Softbank in April last year to develop a common global development platform. The American operator Verizon also joined the JIL in April this year.
The idea behind opening up the network APIs is for each of Vodafone's various operators to roll out their own app stores. The applications will be centrally supplied to the operators by the Vodafone group. By the end of this year, the first wave of such app stores will go live through Vodafone's operators in the UK, Spain, Germany, Portugal, Greece, Ireland, the Netherlands and Italy.
More of Vodafone's operator companies — those operators in whom Vodafone has a majority shareholding — around the world will come 'online' within 18 months, a spokesman for the operator group told ZDNet UK on Tuesday.
Although the point is for the applications to work across various software platforms, Nokia Series 60 would be the first and only platform to initially go live, Vodafone's spokesman said. "We are open to working with any handset operator to get the system running across the broadest possible range," he added.
Vodafone's spokesman said the attraction for application developers would lie in the "extra
functionality" that can be accessed through Vodafone's network APIs, instead of developing for the global iPhone, Nokia, BlackBerry, Windows Mobile or Android app stores.
"Developers will be able to create a different kind of app through......having access to the network APIs," the spokesman said. "If, for example, they want to roll out a location-based service on a large scale to customers who don't have a GPS-enabled phone, they can do that [via triangulation]. The location API will allow services to be delivered through a mobile browser."
Vodafone's spokesman added that the release of the billing API would take "the administrative burden of charging" away from the developer — apps will simply be charged to the user's Vodafone bill. He added that the revenue split for applications would see 70 percent go to the developer with 30 percent being retained by the operator.
Apple and Google, the two companies that have established mobile app stores, have divergent policies on the vetting of apps — Apple keeps a notoriously close eye on what apps go on sale through iTunes, and Google is more relaxed about what goes on the Android Market. Vodafone's spokesman said the operator group would be "very clear and upfront with developers and third-party service providers what we deem to be appropriate content".
"Apps will be certified by Vodafone to ensure that they meet the criteria that have been set out by Vodafone," the spokesman said. He could not, however, say what those criteria would be, nor could he say whether internet telephony (VoIP) applications — which have traditionally be frowned upon by operators — would be permitted.
Telecoms analyst Dean Bubley, of Disruptive Analysis, told ZDNet UK on Tuesday that Vodafone's strategy could pay off because of its cross-platform support.
"There are two trends at the moment: apps which run natively in the operating system, which have been given a boost by the app store concept, and apps running purely in the browser or as widgets," Bubley said. "I suspect we're overdue for a flip back to the web app, or widget, world. One of the things that the web app world promises is much better cross-platform support, in contrast to the Apple approach."
Bubley added that the cross-platform web app approach would be "more favourable" to a developer unless that developer "absolutely needs the horsepower from native apps".