Will A Mobile Alliance Be Good For You?

The new Wholesale Applications Community promises easier app development, but a few details must still be worked out.

Twenty-four mobile carriers from across the world including AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon Wireless have joined forces. Called the Wholesale Applications Community, the group says it will release an open programming standard for mobile applications within the next 12 months. The WAC open standard will not be tied to a specific operating system or device, and will supposedly make it easier for developers to get new apps out to you. Members of the new alliance include major American carriers AT&T and Verizon Wireless, as well as manufacturers LG, Samsung, and Sony Ericsson and the GSM Association (GSMA).

The thinking behind WAC is clear: if developers have only one approval process to go through, then they need to only one application for a potential customer base of three billion people using a variety of different devices across different networks around the world.

That sounds nice for developers, and may be an attractive and cost-effective model for smaller app developers. But what about the users? What benefit do you get from a carrier-based model versus development for specific device platforms such as Apple's iPhone OS and Google's Android? What are some of the possible gains and pitfalls in a WAC-based system? Let's take a look.

Pick Your Device

A common complaint among smartphone users is that one particular device will have a mobile application that another handset won't. Google Voice, for example, is not available as a downloadable app on the iPhone, but can be tightly integrated with the Android-based Nexus One. If you have an iPhone, but are an avid Google Voice user then you lose out.

Under WAC, however, you would be able to pick from a wider range of devices, without worrying about whether or not Google Voice would work. If it's in the app store, it's supposed to work, period.

One Standard, One Choice

The flip side of having more devices to choose from under this model is the fact that your choice of apps may be restricted. WAC hasn't made it clear yet what its approval process will be, but presumably the group will monitor apps to keep malware and other nasty applications from sneaking in. But an approval process means WAC could also stop apps from getting to you, so if WAC is the only application gateway to your device, and the group happens to be particularly picky about which apps get in, then you're out of luck again.

Of course, this already happens with the iPhone, and Apple has been heavily criticized for the company's rigorous, and sometimes ridiculous, app approval policy.   Android apps, on the other hand, have virtually no oversight to police the quality and safety of apps for Android devices.

So will WAC follow the Apple or Android model or something in between? Your best bet is to make sure you understand how WAC will police its applications before getting a compatible device. That way you'll know what to expect in terms of your device's risks and possible limitations.

Consolidate or Fragment Further?

That may seem like a silly question, but since specifics are scarce about how WAC will function in the real world, it deserves some attention. Pricing, for example, is wide open for Android and iPhone developers who are allowed to set their own prices for their apps. Will WAC do the same or will each independent carrier within WAC decide on the price?

It could be a nightmare for you if the carrier gets to decide app pricing, since one network may have ridiculously overpriced apps, while another carrier won't. One carrier could say you have to have a particular service plan to access its app store, while its competitor doesn't.

Another problem could be if WAC members get to decide which apps will run in their individual app stores. That seems probable, since I doubt that a carrier doing business under a communist regime would be able to offer the same applications an American carrier would. So if AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon each have their own app stores based on the same standard, will one have a better selection than the others or will they all be the same?

Then again, as I mentioned above, the problem of restricted selection already exists to a certain extent when you choose between an iPhone and an Android device.

Software for Hardware or Hardware for Software?

The problem with open standards or any one-size-fits-all software solution is that the software and hardware don't always work as elegantly together as they do on closed devices. Apple products are a perfect example of a system of closed products where everything just works. That's because everything is being designed for essentially one product, the iPhone, with one screen size and, more or less, one set of specifications.

That's not the case with Android, and WAC will be the same. So a Facebook application that works beautifully on a Samsung device with a 3.7-inch screen may be dreadful to use on a Sony Ericsson device with a smaller screen.   Just because an application will work on a variety of devices doesn't necessarily mean it should.

It's an interesting idea to have an open set of standards specifically for applications that are independent of the underlying operating system. But I'm not convinced it will work, and I have to wonder if WAC really will deliver on its promise to consolidate the app market or whether it will just fragment the smartphone market even further.

Connect with Ian on Twitter (@ianpaul) or on Google Buzz.

This story, "Will A Mobile Alliance Be Good For You?" was originally published by PCWorld.

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