Last month, at the World Mobile Congress in Barcelona, a group of operators and vendors announced an initiative to open up the world of mobile applications.
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The aims of the WAC – the Wholesale Applications Community – are twofold: to standardise mobile application development and delivery; and to present a response to the success of Apple’s App Store for iPhone applications.
But if the WAC is to succeed, one thing mobile operators will need will be a suitable framework back-ending their new cross-platform app stores. Otherwise, they will find themselves with the unenviable task of trying to build all of the back-end platforms themselves. The handle given to such infrastructure is the service delivery platform, or SDP, and SearchNetworking ANZ spoke to HP’s Carlos Quaderi, South Pacific director for HP Communications & Media Solutions and Digital Media Director for HP Asia Pacific, about the market segment.
According to Quaderi, the industry needs to improve the management, development and delivery of mobile applications for a simple reason: they are seen as the future of revenue growth in the mobile business. And if the applications are to generate the revenue the carriers need, the carriers also need to attract application developers.
“The industry trend is that revenues are declining from voice-based services ... so operators are looking for alternative income streams. Key to that is the delivery of mobile data services.”
Even if (with the exception of Japan) the mobile application space has been a disappointment in the past, it has been subject to many years of development directed to technologies like WAP and GPRS.
“As we got faster and better devices, that has presented a huge opportunity for the service provider community, and we now see the growth and demand coming from that,” he said.
HP’s development work, initially in Japan, has already moved through Korea and the EU, “so we now have a significant base of installed service delivery environments” – and the vendor has now reached version 3.0 of its SDP.
So what is the SDP?
Here’s the problem: building an app into a smartphone is easy, but doesn’t generate any revenue for the operator (other than the traffic the application might generate). Building and selling an individual application is easy, but single, bespoke mobile applications offer access to markets one-application-at-a-time. Building an application store for one device isn’t too hard (look at the App Store) – but trying to build an app store for any smart phone on the carrier’s network is a real challenge.
The carrier needs to understand the profile of the device the potential customer is using; it needs the profile of the user’s account (to make sure it doesn’t sell an application whose traffic needs go beyond that customer’s plan); it needs to match these up with its billing system, so the customer can be billed for the application; and so on.
All of this, Quaderi said, are outside the legacy carrier IT infrastructure.
“Carriers traditionally had network-based platforms as silos offering services – voice platforms offered voice-based services, other platforms offered WAP-based services. A lot of operators were building this out of proprietary systems to offer their services.
“You need a standards-based service that caters for everything from the core network through to the end-user device. So how do you build a low-cost solution that works from the assets within the network, and can provide access to applications outside the network?”
The change, Quaderi says, is for the carriers to work on providing common services to the applications – while making it easy for others to build applications using those services.
Common services might include things like presence, location and messaging – and since all of these have traditionally existed within the carriers’ silos, they need a way to expose these to applications that might be created or hosted outside of their networks.
So there’s another aspect of SDP: not only does the platform let the carriers deliver the services to their end users – it also lets them deliver services to partners like app developers.
HP’s approach is to create four “planes” within the environment:
- The “back-end” service plane, that includes things like location (via the HLR, or home location registry, which knows which base station your phone has logged into) and the subscriber registry;
- A common services plane, where things like location data, control and messaging are handled;
- A service management framework, which could handle things like service management, billing, and application lifecycle management; and
- The application plane which presents services to the end user devices.
The key standard in all of this, Quaderi said, is XML, since it provides a common framework for exposing and describing services and applications.
More than a bit-pipe?
In all of this, however, a key consideration for the carriers is how to protect the value of their networks. Google, for example, has often been quoted as wanting to relegate the mobile networks to a “bit-pipe” role, as has already happened with fixed networks, and this is a dire threat to the carrier community, which sees the margins in mobile as their salvation from deteriorating fixed service incomes.
Carriers, however, “have unique differentiators that Google and Apple don’t have”, Quaderi said.
One of those is subscriber data management. “The operators have a host of information about their subscribers, and the depth of that information is above and beyond what Google or Apple have.” That information includes things like the subscriber’s identity, their plan, their usage behaviour, the services they buy, and what other product the customer has from the same provider.
“The second is revenue management. The carrier has the billing relationship with the end user ... so they have the billing management, the offer management and so on.”
The trick is being able to use these to make more money out of mobile applications.
Not just another app store
The other aim is to turn the applications into income without replicating what Apple has done in its App Store. That means offering something that’s attractive to the application developer (hence the work that the WAC will do to standardise the application environments themselves), and to create an environment in which apps can be offered without building yet another app store.
In the HP environment, application developers are supported through the XML service exposure already mentioned; through a RESTful gateway (REST stands for Representational State Transfer – something for a future article, since a full exploration is beyond the available space!) to simplify application development; a storefront portal product designed to support the application ecosystem, and which includes the ability to test and certify applications within operator environments; service orchestration to help operators define new services, workflows and lifecycle management; and a revenue management product so that developers can propose business models and pricing for their applications.
What’s exciting about all this for the carriers – and users – is this: as we get tighter coupling between the carrier, the application environment and the end user, we get not only the opportunity for a wider range of apps working across more smartphone platforms; there’s also the chance to make apps more responsive in real time.
Quaderi said the carrier could, for example, manage applications so as to restrict some applications from minors (for example, gaming applications).
Or application developers might use realtime profiles and requests to tailor the services on offer; or carriers might even sell ad-hoc off-plan capacity to a customer who doesn’t want a video-capable plan, but wants to watch occasional videos for a one-off payment.
It’s a world which Quaderi says goes far beyond the “walled garden” that represents so much mobile data today.