Apple Will Laugh At The Operators’ App Store

Peter Judge has been involved with tech B2B publishing in the UK for many years, working at Ziff-Davis, ZDNet, IDG and Reed. His main interests are networking security, mobility and cloud

The mobile operators think they can replace Apple’s App Store with their own version of the concept. They don’t stand a chance because they are missing the point, says Peter Judge

This year’s Mobile World Congress is all about app stores. At least, that’s how it is looking today, with the mobile operators trying desparately to displace the iPhone model by producing their own app community.

Unfortunately, the operators’ response is – as always – completely out of touch with the times, and unable to really appreciate how people want to operate on the mobile web.

The mobile operators’ “Wholesale Applications Community“, launched today, is supposed to provide a multi-platform place for users to get applications for their phones.

That’s a fair enough idea. Most people with iPhones don’t care whether their apps are available elsewhere, but business users and others actually want to be able to use software without being tied to the iPhone and paying the “Apple Tax”.

It is possible that the Android platform might be able to stand against this to some extent – though a quick look at Google search data shows that, outside the tech ghetto, Android has a minuscule mindshare compared to Apple.

The phones, such as the Nexus One, that run Android aren’t as user-friendly as the iPhone, but in some respects – say multitasking – actually perform better, and have a substantial number of apps to choose from. The danger is that Android itself might fragment as platforms adapt to it differently.

But everything about the Wholesale Applications Community smacks of expensive operator-backed failure. Operators used to think mobile users could be kept in a “walled garden”, but this looks like a bid to join up those gardens into some sort of municipal park – with a name that won’t excite anyone, and probably all sorts of organisational and technical hurdles in front of anyone who wants to play there. 

Every time it looks like an operator is starting to understand what mobile users want, its primitive unconscious hindbrain kicks in and destroys the understanding. Deep down, operators believe they own the users. They think users care about whose network they are using, and believe they can therefore do what they want with them: check out the superficially attractive Vodafone 360 idea for example: it gives great interaction with … other Vodafone users.

In fact, no one gives a toss about operators, except other operators (apart from when they give lousy coverage). But they do care what Apple does. “Every time Steve Jobs decides to launch a new product/device/service, the entire world, the common individual in the street included, passionately discusses it for days,” says Frost & Sullivan analyst, Saverio Romeo. “Every time the rest of the industry announces new events, the announcement remains within the industry.”

Apple, says Romeo, has a castle, made of a good innovation strategy, with good enough devices, content distribution, and revenue model – and superb branding: “If the rest of the industry keeps just talking about applications stores trying to walk on the Apple’s bridge, they will always find Steve Jobs at the door of the castle.”