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Be nice to app developers say mobile operators

The heads of some of the world's largest mobile operators have recognised the importance of apps developers to their businesses during the opening session of Mobile World Congress in Barcelona - as has the head of an organisation supporting the introduction of small cells such as the Vodafone Sure Signal box.

Developers have been criticised for creating apps, such as the Skype voice over IP service or YouTube video sharing, which burden the operators' networks with heavy traffic without contributing any revenue.

Li Yue, president of China Mobile, which has 650 million subscribers, told the opening session that the rapidly changing mobile landscape meant that "there are more challenges than opportunities" for operators, and so his strategy is to "be open and collaborate to enable a new mobile Internet lifestyle".

"In 2012, our voice and SMS business has been under pressure from the content business," he said, "but we have advantages we can leverage, such as 900,000 basestations, our own channels, 650 million customers, an integrated supply chain and positioning, localisation and social services.

"In the past, we were a bridge connecting users and terminal companies. Now we want to be a smart channel, increasing user friendliness and promoting our open platform as a single point of entry to multiple services," Li added.

The company has a mobile market platform which enables developers to test new services.

"It has changed our revenue model fundamentally," Li added. For example, China Mobile has created a 'job market' platform, in collaboration with 2000 universities, which now has 3.7 million users. The company has also created a marketplace for consumer downloads which has 167 million users, who have downloaded 670 million items.

China Mobile is supporting developers by creating 'pools' of terminals, mobile operating systems and network capabilities with which they can experiment.

"We should learn from Internet innovation and find ways to facilitate developers," Li added.

Ralph de la Vega, president and CEO of AT&T Mobility, argued that the way to keep the virtuous circle of mobile innovation going was to make services effortless for users: "We need to embrace developers and treat them like customers. They’re the ones making it easy [for our end users]."

The company is doing this by providing tools which help developers understand the network resources that AT&T can offer, and how their apps will affect them. 

Franco Bernabe, chairman of the GSMA and CEO of Telecom Italia, gave a more traditional view of companies which write applications that run as data services 'over the top' of operators' networks, often in competition with the operators' own revenue-generating services.

"OTT services are both destructive and a new opportunity," Bernabe said. "The mobile industry is based on open standards, whereas OTT offerings are often proprietary. This hinders competition."

Bernabe accused OTT service providers of building businesses without a deep understanding of the underlying technical issues, creating problems for the network operators, such as the excessive network signalling traffic caused by early apps developers.

"We expect this to be an ongoing challenge," he added.

Vittorio Colao, CEO of Vodafone Group, steered a middle course. He said that in a recent survey, the top four things that customers cared about from their mobile operators were ubiquitous coverage, excellent customer service, security and privacy.

"These four things can only be delivered together by the mobile operators," he said. "It is important that policymakers understand this because without he operators these four things won’t be delivered in a consistent way."

The Small Cell Forum, which represents companies involved in producing femtocells, picocells, metrocells and microcells, announced an initiative on Tuesday morning that could help both app developers and the mainstream operators.

Working with platform provider Aepona, the Forum has released a set of resources for people who want to develop apps that take advantage of th especial features of small cells. The resources include a developer forum, applications programming interfaces (APIs), application specifications, tutorials, code samples, and a 'sandbox' in which apps can be tested before they are exposed to the full mobile network.

Simon Saunders, chair of the Small Cell Forum, said that up to now, the engagement between operators and developers has been a specialist activity. The new forum is supposed to make it easier for apps developers to access features of small cells, such as the extremely accurate location information they provide, to build new products and services. These could include services that alert you when a family member gets home, or that reconfigure your mobile phone from work to personal mode when you leave the office. 

Mobile network operators could benefit from the opportunity to cache frequently used content in the small cells, to avoid it being downloaded over the mobile network again, and from using the small cells to manage the excessive signalling traffic that some badly written apps generate. 

“The fact that both small cell deployments and mobile app uptake are rocketing presents a major opportunity," said Andy Germano, The Small Cell Forum’s vice-chairman and head of the services working group. "Intelligent cells that can wake up apps when a user is in a precise geographical place could be a boon to thousands of existing applications."

The Forum has already published the first APIs that define how to create and write apps based on small-cell technologies, and has just agreed to work with the Open Mobile Alliance to develop a global set of open API standards for small cells.

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