big headlines today with its parent company's announcement of its own sales system that will route around the Android Market and let consumers run up charges directly on the monthly bill sent to them by their telephone carrier. Called the Bad Piggy Bank, the in-app payment system will also be offered to other developers as a service.The smash-hit puzzle game Angry Birds made
This is not just a story about Android struggling to keep developers happy, though. Mobile developers can program on top of device hardware capabilities, Operating System or software capabilities - or on top of the telephone networks themselves. The story of the Bad Piggy Bank is a page out of the larger story of a fight between device-level companies and network-level companies for the attention of developers. Traditionally, we think of post-iPhone mobile apps as being almost entirely based on the phone and its OS - but it doesn't have to be that way. Carrier level payment joins a list of other capabilities being advanced on the carrier level, including location tracking, presence status, push notifications and more.
Getting in the Game
Verizon, the largest wireless network in the United States (and, in full disclosure, a ReadWriteWeb sponsor), for example, held an all-too-unnoticed developers conference this September where it unveiled 20 different network-level Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) now available to developers building apps for customers who use the Verizon network.
People generally hate their telephone network providers, but they often love their handset providers. A big part of that is because the few apps that carriers have offered have been terrible, but handset and Operating Systems have become platforms for tons of very cool apps. What if the phone company could be as app-cool as an iPhone or Android? That's not just cool, it's also profitable and a source of industry power.
Carrier-oriented mobile apps would still be experienced by the user on their handset, of course, but the developers of those apps are able to tap into technical capabilities offered by the telephone networks themselves.
Payment is Just One of Many Options
Telecommunications middleware giant Alcatel-Lucent (disclosure: a ReadWriteWeb sponsor) is now focusing significant energy on bringing its carrier customers together with the most exciting developers it can find. Allison Cerra and Christina James of Alcatel recently outlined a number of key categories of network level APIs that carriers could offer in their book The Shift, including:
- Presence or availability status of an end user
- User location for ambient information services, geofencing and place-based commerce
- Identity; user profiles like social networks provide today
- Quality of Service flexibility for developers (bandwidth use turned up or down as needed - this one does make a person wonder about network neutrality of course)
- Storage, similar to the way a Content Delivery Network serves developers today
- Finally, billing - the type of service that Angry Birds announced today is something that carriers themselves could offer developers in some circumstances.
(Disclosure again: I wrote the foreword to the book The Shift. It's a really good book, not explicitly salesy at all.)
Alcatel-Lucent is taking a variety of steps to try to facilitate this move of application developers towards a more carrier-centric orientation, including this Fall's acquisition of cross-platform mobile app compiler OpenPlug (so the company's phone network customers can offer their own app development platforms) and a nascent API monitoring service (like Consumer Reports for anyone considering building on top of someone else's API) from ProgrammableWeb, another recent acquisition.
It's not just traditional telephony companies that are thinking in terms of network capabilities as a development platform, either. IBM's chief scientist Jeff Jonas emphasizes that there are a whole lot of options that remain unexplored to date for software development and data analysis throughout the mobile value chain. "Mobile devices in America are generating something like 600 billion geo-spatially tagged transactions per day," he says.
"Every call, text message, email and data transfer handled by your mobile device creates a transaction with your space-time coordinate (to roughly 60 meters accuracy if there are three cell towers in range), whether you have GPS or not. Got a Blackberry? Every few minutes, it sends a heartbeat, creating a transaction whether you are using the phone or not."
For potential developers on top of that huge data platform, that number Jonas references is 7,000 times bigger than the full firehose of Twitter data that so many companies are scrambling to get their hands on - and potentially far more valuable. (A final disclosure, IBM, like Verizon, advertises on ReadWriteWeb through the Federated Media ad network. This is not a commercial, it's a blog post about a really interesting development in technology. It only makes sense to reference some of the most interesting work being done online in this area and it just so happens that the most interesting companies doing that work also sponsor ReadWriteWeb.)
This wealth of carrier-level opportunity is something that some application developers have recognized for years, of course. The first big recognizable location-based social network on the market was Loopt - which was funded an incredible 5 years ago, you'll note, by Sequoia Capital, backers of Google and YouTube. Loopt ties in to carrier level location data and thus has offered "background apps" since before the iPhone was out of diapers.
In other words, sometimes teaming up with carriers lets developers do things they couldn't otherwise do. Like build a Bad Piggy Bank, for example. That's not the end of the story at all, though. The story of mobile developers beginning to explore more carrier-oriented development paradigms is much, much bigger.