Mobile App Compiler OpenPlug Joins Alcatel-Lucent
Maybe you love mobile apps - or maybe you build them yourself. Either way, it's big news that international mobile infrastructure conglomerate Alcatel-Lucent has acquired cross-platform mobile app development tool and compiler OpenPlug.
Alcatel-Lucent, a company with a nearly $6 billion market cap, will soon begin offering OpenPlug's Adobe Flex application development tool that compiles apps into native code. It will be offered both direct to developers (freemium) and to telephony service providers around the world interested in exposing their technology to build a developer community. Telephony could be just the beginning as well, as Alcatel has DVRs and other connected devices in its long-term sights. As part of a platform play, this acquisition is like a seed; densely packed with promise, aiming to power the reinvigoration of the world's telephone companies. It may or may not work. Enabling apps to drive consumer demand for data is the strategy.
The Big Picture on Mobile Apps
When you hear "mobile apps" don't just think about you and your friends downloading a few apps to your iPhone or Android.
Leading mobile tech blog MSearchGroove cites leading mobile analyst Chetan Sharma's estimate there were over 7 billion mobile app downloads in 2009, 37% of which were in Asia. That number is expected to grow to almost 50 billion by 2012. Revenue is forecast to increase from $4.1 billion in 2009 to $17.5 billion by 2012.
Mobile apps aren't just about you poking an app store on your phone, either. Sharma was cited by Gigaom last month, reporting that more non-human internet-connected devices came online with AT&T and Verizon last quarter than did new human mobile subscribers.
Your kitchen refrigerator's analytics service? There will be apps for that. Maybe they'll even be written in native code across multiple platforms for devices from different providers.
OpenPlug is an eight-year old company that originally focused on enabling application developers to build apps for feature phones. Today it offers an Adobe Flex app authoring tool that compiles to native code in iOS, Android, Symbian, leading feature phone operating systems and other platforms.
App platforms are big today, but they are expected to be even bigger in the future. If telephony service providers begin offering easy tools for publishing cross-platform native mobile apps, that could set fire to the mobile app world all the more.
The Strategic Fit
Alcatel-Lucent is a major telephony infrastructure provider headquartered in Paris, but consisting of a number of big technology players including the historic Bell Telephone Laboratories. What does the company do? They sell pipes, essentially, to telephone service providers. This Summer, for example, AT&T customers were experiencing slow upload speeds on their brand new iPhones and AT&T said it was the fault of Alcatel-Lucent technology. Alcatel-Lucent sells a wide variety of middleware technologies to almost every major telephone service provider you could name and many you probably couldn't.
Alcatel serves telephone companies. And telephone companies know that the times are changing. The days of "Ring, ring, operator? Please connect me to Grandma Ginnie" are over. Billions of mobile phone devices are now in the pockets of people all around the world - more people have access to mobile phones than have access to clean drinking water - and value-added applications are a prime selling point and likely source of bandwidth-driven revenue generation in the future.
Enter the company's API strategy. Alcatel is now investing substantial resources into what it calls "application enablement." It acquired the web's leading directory and tracking service for APIs, Programmable Web. (Pick an API on ProgrammableWeb, Alcatel says, and imagine an interface built in OpenPlug to compile apps written against it, to any mobile platform.) It is doing outreach to developers all around the world. It is telling its telephone service provider customers that they should purchase its support for exposing new technical capabilities to outside developers through APIs.
What a Mobile App Authoring Platform Means
Alcatel-Lucent says its customers have identified not just the big-picture telephony service capabilities like voice, quality of service, analytics, telepresence, user identity and user activity streams (hello, that's a lot of capabilities aka development platform hooks) but in fact "hundreds" of data and service types it could expose to 3rd party developers to build apps on top of. ("Hundreds?" I asked the company, "If there are hundreds, I want to see that list.")
Got that? The explosion of mobile devices around the world has corresponded with a shift in the telephony economy, such that phone service providers now seek to expose the many different characteristics of their pipes (really just very reliable data) to a splintered ecosystem of tiny, independent software developers. That's intended to offer customers upsold multi-media, self-publishing based, long-tail, real-time communications capabilities (for consumer, enterprise, education, medical markets etc.) that would probably have been unimaginable when these phone company giants were founded, usually just decades ago. (Eg. "I want to enable companies to build a service that lets their customers see the online activities of multiple co-workers, speaking together in real-time, from different locations, on a device they carry casually in their pockets.")
But there is enough variety in the mobile market that killer apps have got to be cross-platform.
"We've seen a lot of RFPs from carriers asking for a cross-platform development solution," Laura Merling, vice president of Alcatel-Lucent's global developer strategy, told us. "As a service provider, tell me how you solve that problem, they say. One way to do this will be to license a tool to carriers to offer to their developer community."
Opening up the ability for a much larger number of developers to author applications that can run natively across multiple mobile device platforms, accessing new communications capabilities from telephony service providers? That sounds like a logical reason for a company like Alcatel-Lucent to buy a company like OpenPlug - and reason for even end users to take note of what it could mean for the future of their experiences with their phones.
Disclosure: Alcatel-Lucent happens to be a sponsor of ReadWriteWeb and the author of this post was commissioned to write the forward to the company's new book about application enablement ("The Shift: The Evolving Market, Players and Business Models in a 2.0 World") but honestly, show us any acquisition in service of a telephony middleware provider shifting to adopt a major mobile API strategy and we're going to cover that with great interest no matter what company is involved. We love that kind of stuff. Also, the book is a great read, if you're a nerd who likes original ethnographic research about the different customer requirements for telephony APIs across various market segments. I mean a really good read.