Rivals Rendezvous in Europe to Plot Against Apple
The focus at the Mobile World Congress this week seems to be centered on a company that's not even exhibiting there. A new alliance has formed to attract mobile developers to its members' platforms, and that membership does not include Apple. Meanwhile, phone makers are sharpening their offerings with new hardware and software features.
Apple's rivals have launched a flurry of broadsides against the iTunes App Store at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona this week.
Twenty-four wireless carriers around the world, supported by major smartphone manufacturers, teamed up to build an open app platform through their new organization, the Wholesale Applications Community.
Meanwhile, the Joint Innovation Lab, whose members include China Mobile, the world's largest wireless carrier in terms of subscriber population, announced that it would open its widget application programming interface to the wireless carrier community at large and that it would join the WAC.
Also, Apple arch-rival RIM unveiled a new browser for its BlackBerry devices that's based on the same WebKit rendering engine as Apple's Safari browser.
"One of our analysts, who's at the Mobile World Congress, said the envy of Apple's App Store is palpable over there," Carl Howe, director, anywhere research at the Yankee Group, told MacNewsWorld. "Everybody's kicking themselves that they're not collecting all that revenue."
None of this seemed to affect Apple's share prices, which rode the crest of an overall market rally Tuesday to close at $203.40, up $3.02 or 1.51 percent. That's their highest level since Jan. 27.
The Wholesale Applications Community wants to build an environment where "innovative applications can be developed irrespective of device or technology," according to a statement on the group's Web site.
Members include two of the world's largest carriers in terms of subscriber base -- China Mobile and China Unicom -- as well as major players such as AT&T, Verizon Wireless, Sprint, Orange and NTT DoCoMo. The community has drawn the support of the GSM Association. It is also backed by handset makers Samsung, LG Electronics and Sony Ericsson.
The WAC's aim is to let developers, especially small developers, monetize their products by letting them write apps that will run over multiple mobile operating systems without the need for recoding.
Its varied membership lets the WAC offer developers access to markets in Europe, Asia and the United States all at once.
The WAC may be seen as an attempt by service providers to wrest back control of the lucrative mobile apps market for themselves. "We're starting to see a lot of concern over the amount of control Apple has in the ecosystem," Maribel Lopez, principal analyst and founder at Lopez Research, told MacNewsWorld. "Between Apple and Google, service provides have lost all control over the customer -- they're not providing the devices, the applications or the services to customers anymore. So, they're interested in making it possible for other people to come in and compete against Apple and Google."
Joint Innovation Lab Work
The WAC's efforts will get a boost from the JIL, which is opening up its widget APIs (application programming interfaces) to all carriers. and has contributed the API specs to the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C).
JIL was set up by China Mobile, Softbank, Verizon Wireless and Vodafone. It has launched several tools, including a common mobile widgets specification and easy-to-use developer kits, to encourage innovation among global mobile developers.
Or, to put it another way, it's trying to lure some app developers away from the iTunes App Store, which had about 140,000 apps at last count.
HTC, Huawei Device, Lenovo, ZTE, LG, RIM, Samsung and Sharp have committed to support the JIL APIs.
While the combination of the WAC and the JIL could lead to the widespread adoption of a common architecture among mobile app developers, it's not likely to leave Apple out in the cold.
"The question is, where's the center of gravity, and which are the really exciting apps that people use?" the Yankee Group's Howe said. "Write once, work anywhere is a wonderful dream, as Google's Andy Rubin once said. One size doesn't fit all."
Out on the RIM
Meanwhile, RIM's overhaul of its browser in a bid to take Apple head-on might be a case of too little, too late.
RIM will use the same WebKit rendering engine as the iPhone's Safari browser, and it may be hoping that this, combined with widgets written to the WAC's and JIL's specifications, will bolster its battle against the iPhone.
That's going to be an improvement, but it may not be enough to let RIM take on the iPhone mano a mano. "Anything RIM can do to improve its browser will be an improvement, but that alone won't help it beat the iPhone," Al Hilwa, a program director at IDC, told MacNewsWorld.
"RIM's overhaul of its browser is a great effort to catch up," the Yankee Group's Howe said. "Unfortunately, it's really hard to get ahead of where the iPhone is -- Apple's had the WebKit browser for three years now. The browser overhaul's necessary but may not be sufficient to keep customers."
The jury's still out on this issue.
"This change will make BlackBerries browser-centric, so they'll appeal more to the consumer" IDC's Hilwa pointed out. "Up to now they've been email-centric." As enterprises shift to consumer-centric devices over time (since people will use one device at work and at home), the browser overhaul may see RIM regaining some ground against the iPhone and that other, newly awakened bugbear, Android phones, Hilwa said.
Another factor that may give the RIM and other iPhone competitors a boost is the finite life of wireless phone contracts. "In the U.S. market, we have a 90 percent penetration of mobile phones, but these will all have to be turned over in the next two years," Lopez Research's Lopez pointed out. "The war for the smartphone market is not over."
On the other hand, Apple could once again change the shape of the market in June, when it's widely expected to launch the iPhone 4G. "The question is, what's the new iPhone operating system going to be?" Lopez said. "Apple views its mobile operating system as a Trojan horse."