Sprint plans to open app store next year

Sprint also will remove its own built-in application lineup from future BlackBerry handsets and Windows mobile phones

Sprint Nextel next year will introduce a new, more open application store on its feature phones, turning to a third party to manage it with the goal of getting new offerings out to consumers in an average of one week.

The third-largest U.S. operator also will remove its own built-in set of application offerings, or "deck," from its future BlackBerry handsets and from Windows phones from Windows Mobile 6.5 onward, said JP Brocket, general manager of wireless consumer applications, at the Sprint Open Developer Conference in Santa Clara, Calif. Sprint's Android and Palm WebOS phones already ship without a Sprint application deck, relying on the Android Marketplace and Palm's own stores.

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Carriers have come under fire from mobile application developers for taking too long to approve new applications and placing too many restrictions on them, and they have been moving toward outside app stores since the successful launch of Apple's iPhone App Store. Sprint wants to get out of devoting its resources to lengthy evaluations of software for its own deck and believes a third-party specialist would be better equipped to handle the path from development to sale, Brocket said.

"It's kind of a big new day for us to relinquish that management," Brocket said. "But ultimately, if you make good content and customers want it, you should have the right to get it out there and succeed. ... I don't need 10 people behind a desk, behind a wall, looking at every piece of content and making the call whether it's good or bad. Customers will make that choice."

Sprint plans to start up the new store early in the first quarter of next year. As long as a potential application works and meets basic requirements such as a core set of controls and support mechanisms, it should be approved for the new store, he said.

Its main aim is to get more applications out to consumers, Brocket said. In addition to speeding up the approval process, Sprint will bring its revenue-sharing plans with developers in line with the industry norm. Though the market will be more open, Sprint will offer application providers marketing opportunities to make themselves stand out among others, he said.

In addition to the new, outsourced app store, Sprint is working with GetJar to offer that company's store for free mobile apps to most of its subscribers, Brocket said. The carrier will also allow subscribers to download other app stores and over time try to give consumers easy access on their phones to other popular, well-managed stores, he said.

Feature phones, which are less expensive and full-featured than smartphones such as Android and BlackBerry handsets, are about half the phones Sprint sells today and are making up a growing share, Brocket said.

Sprint also aims to add carrier billing for application purchases on all storefronts, including the Android, Windows Mobile, Palm and BlackBerry app stores.

This app store strategy will span all of Sprint's business units, including Nextel, Boost Mobile and its emerging WiMax network, Brocket said. On some networks, such as WiMax, it may be even more open, he said.

Some developers at the conference said they were already working in the iPhone arena and were exploring Sprint's various platforms for expansion.

Vinh Ton, director of product development at Vergence Entertainment, was encouraged by Sprint's goal of one-week application approval. Vergence is developing a casual game for the iPhone and also considering other mobile OSes. In addition to a quick path to market, Ton would like to see more ways of making an application stand out than a straight app-store popularity ranking by user ratings. Brocket's reference to marketing opportunities was encouraging, he said.

Another limitation of the mobile world is that it's hard for an application provider to get information from the carrier about the consumers who buy their products, Ton said. This type of information is a key tool in fine-tuning products and marketing for Web-based and desktop games, he said. Sprint's story was not very promising on this point: Asked about this capability during his presentation, Brocket said Sprint may provide information about consumer preferences based on ratings or handset types but not demographic information, citing subscriber privacy.

"I don't think sharing full information about customers is something that we're going to be opening up any time soon, if ever," Brocket said.

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