Verizon's plan to entice mobile developers

The carrier's planned app store will focus on BlackBerry and Windows Mobile apps -- and easier process for developers. Is that enough?

You can't buy the kind of publicity Apple gets for free every day. Mainstream and not-so-mainstream media outlets are gaga over the iPhone, running gushy app-of-the-day features, and breathlessly reporting the ever increasing number of downloads from the App Store. The San Francisco Chronicle, to cite one egregious example, ran 157 articles in just 30 days about, or at least mentioning, the iPhone.

Not exactly an environment that pushes a company to do better. So if you believe in the virtues of competition in the marketplace, you have to welcome the news that Verizon is getting serious about mobile apps.

[ See why life isn't always so rosy for iPhone developers. | Learn the pros and cons for developers of the main mobile platforms. | Discover the four options for BlackBerry app development. ]

Once stuck in a bucket of BREW, telco's runner-up carrier is broadening its horizons with a new focus on platforms, including RIM's BlackBerry, Windows Mobile, and perhaps Android and Palm, says Ryan Hughes, Verizon's VP of partner management.

The apps will be distributed via an online store, which Verizon expects to open before the end of the year. What's more, a company not known as particularly developer-friendly is streamlining its approval process for new mobile applications and pledging to be competitive on the revenue-sharing front.

Fast-track approval process
"The walled garden is down," Hughes tells me. What does that mean? First of all, Verizon is not going to set qualitative rules for its applications. "We're not going to reject a game because we think it needs to have more levels," he says. (Like other U.S. carriers, Verizon has been notorious for the high controls over its limited selection and distribution of existing old-technology mobile apps, the so-called walled garden.)

Obviously, applications have to meet technical standards -- an app that power cycles a phone and quickly drains the battery, for example, will need to be fixed before winning approval. "We take content standards and parental controls very seriously, but at same time our commitment is to rapid distribution," Hughes says.

Hughes was deliberately vague on details of how the store will work and how developers will interact with Verizon. Answers to most of those questions should come on July 28, at the Verizon Developer Community Conference, he says. Even so, Verizon's desire to make nice with the developer community, and to make up for some past wrongs, is something Hughes is happy to talk about right now.

"We can withstand some fair criticism of where we've been in past," he admits. Saying that he's not making excuses, Hughes adds that development and distribution of apps for what Verizon calls "feature," or standard, wireless phones with a closed platform is necessarily quite different than development and distribution of consumer-oriented smartphone apps. He adds that Qualcomm's BREW, Verizon's old app platform, is not going away.

"We want to make the process [for developers] as simple as possible. We need to deliver clarity from submission and contract to distribution." Or as one Verizon pr person put it: "Verizon will come to you; you won't have to go to Basking Ridge, N.J. [the company's corporate headquarters] anymore." The implication, of course, is that the process will be online.

Similarly, the mechanics of Verizon's financial deal with developers won't be clear until the conference, but it will be a revenue-sharing model and it will be competitive -- "and there will be no hidden fees," he says.

Verizon won't block installation of on-device clients like App World for BlackBerrys, Marketplace for Mobile on Windows devices, or the Android Marketplace on smartphones running Google's mobile OS. In other words, customers will still be able to download and use whatever compatible app stores they please; they'll just have to locate and install those clients themselves.

Verizon's tough road
I started the column complaining that Apple gets too much free publicity, but at the risk of hoisting myself on my own petard, I have to mention the enormous momentum its app store has achieved. In its first year, the store recorded 1.5 billion downloads and offered 65,000 separate apps. And the iPhone Developer Program now has more than 100,000 participants.

Then there's a big question about Verizon's strategy that may have to wait for the late July event: Why should developers crank out BlackBerry apps and Windows Mobile apps on Verizon's platform and be restricted to Verizon's customers, when they can instead develop directly for BlackBerry App World and Marketplace for Mobile and reach customers at all carriers, not just at Verizon?

"Verizon offers scale and distribution... And access to our customer base.  We're also offering APIs to enhance the apps that have been done for RIM," says a company spokeswoman. Is that good enough? Let me know what you think.

Verizon likely won't launch its store until it has a critical mass of developers and applications, but the company is keeping to itself the expected scale of those numbers.

How well all this will work remains to be seen, of course. But as an iPhone user, I'm rooting for Verizon to get it right. Apple and AT&T badly need the competition.

I welcome your comments, tips, and suggestion. Reach me at bill.snyder@sbcglobal.net.

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