App Store mania: the new mobile battleground

Competition or partnership, asks Tim Harrison

App Store mania: the new mobile battleground
This article is a guest contribution from mobile games industry veteran Tim Harrison (pictured).

Another week, another parade of app stor[e]ys. Having only just got our breath back after Mobile World Congress's tsunami of announcements about the mobile retailing revolution, we're now thrashing about under the waves of stores now hitting the market. And with them, the first rip tides.

First, there was the less-than-optimal billing integration on RIM's otherwise impressive BlackBerry App World. Sure it's early days for the store, but it served as a reminder that direct iTunes or operator billing still rule the roost in execution.

Then Orange's announcement of its own app store, reinforcing the point that however much an upstart OEM might think otherwise, operators have an undeniable role in the development of the app store model.

Last – but not least – it seems that Apple has re-worded its contracts to clamp down on third parties selling content for their beloved device.

In just those three stories – and there will be many, many more in the months ahead – we have a pretty good snapshot of the commercial environment we're now entering.

It's a reminder that despite the genius simplicity of Apple's model, any new app store deliveries are being born into a world that is more complex than ever.

While everyone wants to take a bite of this new retail paradigm, let's remember; not everyone can be an Apple. From both a commercial and technical perspective, Apple has near end-to-end vertical control of the chain; a partnership with a single operator has been the final, concessionary link in each market to date.

It has allowed them not only to satisfy their own agenda, but the pure execution of their vision has delivered an unsurpassed user experience.

A world of complexity

The rest of the European OEM market has had to paddle about in the muddy waters of complex relationships, reliance on technical standards and compatibilities, operator intransigence and commercial horse-trading.

Inevitably, the result has been diluted and dumbed-down versions of their own service strategies – with predictable consequences for consumer uptake.

Just 18 months ago, proprietary was Evil and operators owned retail (or at least the respectable face of it). Technical standards were the way forward, operators the gatekeepers of the status quo.

In the pursuit of compelling mobile gaming functionality, single-mindedness and isolationism was a sure way to exacerbate fragmentation and kneecap the development of technologies for the mass-market.

And, in most cases, generate an almighty operator strop that would soon put paid to any off-message ambition.

The world is different now. App store mania marks just the early skirmish on a battleground that will develop over the next several years. And we'll be embroiled in an almighty shitstorm unless operators either exercise effectively on their plans to control a bigger chunk of the device-service value chain, or else focus on enablement of the market.

A few will have the scale and market power to control their destinies. The majority will be unable to avoid becoming a pipe; but at least they can ensure that they become the leanest, smartest, friendliest (and most cost-effective) pipe in town.

Keep calm and carry on

This is not about encouraging enmity and ruthless ambition. In a commercial environment where device manufacturers are wrestling for more control, every operator is struggling to maintain its authority.

But the need for collaboration and partnership – upon honest and pragmatic commercial lines – is more important than ever if the customer is to benefit, because an app store alone is no panacea.

Does a manufacturer-controlled application storefront really mean progress, or just another mouth to feed on open market (non-subsidised) devices? Will an open retail environment, without a standardised SDK or development environment really scale for most developers?

Does an open marketplace matter one jot to consumers unless it offers great discovery and price transparency and parity across retailers? Will great apps and a pleasing environment cut through if billing is clunky and incongruous?

Let's not forget the old spectre of fragmentation here; a proliferation of different stores on different devices is now hitting myriad operators and outlets.

It is not inconceivable that within a year, a customer will be able to shop at an on-device storefront put there by his operator, his handset manufacturer, a publisher or even the high street outlet where he bought the thing. All at different prices using different billing models and/or methods.

Maybe that’s just broadening consumer choice – never such a bad thing? Maybe one should applaud the spirit of competition?

Hmm... I for one would be throwing rotten tomatoes at the ogre of customer bewilderment.

No, the spirit required here will be one of partnership, commercial pragmatism and cooperation on a common imperative – the penetration of rich mobile services into the mass-market.

OEMs and operators need to be braver about defining functionality – whether standards-based or proprietary – and stick to them across devices and platforms to give developers the scale to justify their investment.

Or just letting things lie. If a few low-end devices end up with a sub-par experience, isn't it better to market them to the customer differently rather than shoehorn them into an unrealistic proposition? And isn't it time operators took a longer-term approach on revenue shares and became the partner of choice not merely necessity?

Maybe it's all too big an ask. But then again, until last week, so too was herding 20 world powers into an unloved aircraft hanger in East London and getting them to actually agree on something.

Former Head of Games at Vodafone and European marketing director at EA Mobile, Tim Harrison is founder of The Mobile Consultancy, an advisory firm specialising in the mobile games and applications space.

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