The next two years are likely to see an avalanche of mobile-friendly applications as enterprises, network operators and handset makers struggle to beef up their margins.
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Just how important the application market is becoming can be judged from Vodafone's tie-up this week with Israel-based Nexperience. The world's biggest mobile carrier will use Nexperience's system to provide its business partners with a secure online environment to pre-load applications onto Vodafone handsets and test them prior to distribution.
The Mobile World Congress, the mobile industry showcase that opens next week in Barcelona, is expected to reveal a battle for developers' minds and money. The protagonists are Symbian (ex-Nokia/Ericsson), Android (Google), iPhone (Apple), Microsoft and Blackberry (Research in Motion).
Symbian is using MWC to announce that 78 industry partners have now pledged their support. These include Atelier, Bank of America, Gemalto, Hewlett-Packard, Imagination Technologies, Mobica, MySpace, Nanoradio, Omron Software, Qualcomm, SanDisk, SESCA, SiRF Technology and VirtualLogix.
They have an attractive market to aim at. Symbian runs on more than 250 million mobile phones in use on more than 250 networks. It already has "tens of thousands" of third-party applications written, says Symbian.
Most of the applications developed to date have been consumer-oriented. However, the number of business applications available or in development is rising quickly. This is expected to accelerate as the security and speed offered by handsets and mobile networks improves.
Driving the development is the need to increase the average revenue per user (ARPU). This lies behind Nokia's shift into selling services and content, and its donation of the Symbian and S60 operating systems to the Symbian Foundation, with the instruction to make it an open source platform by 2010.
This was in response to Google's Android, an open system development platform that currently runs on T-Mobile's G1 phone. Google was answering the phenomenal commercial success of Apple's iPhone, which was itself a reaction to the proprietary Blackberry, still the mobile of choice for many executives, including US president Barak Obama.
Android is highlighting the ease with which developers can string together each others' applications. Writing on the Android developers' blog, Jason Chen says once Shazam identifies a song, the user can search for the artist's official MySpace profile page or buy it via an Amazon MP3 app.
Meanwhile, Ericsson will unveil its Connected Home Gateway software at MWC. This lets users interact with their home computer, TV or media player, services and media, wherever they are. The gateway also enables one single entry point for IPTV and multimedia telephony services into the home.
As business apps migrate onto mobile phones, enterprises will start to use them as the primary corporate interface device. Already most network operators will offer to switch internal corporate calls between company mobiles. This allows firms to ditch their pbxes, desk phones, and cabling.
And if workers will let the company communicate with them via their personal mobiles, which are likely to be a higher specification than the corporate ones, firms might even save the cost of the phones.