AS MOBILE PLATFORMS get engaged in an application store war, there is one company that is trying to converge devices and applications into a single app store.
The biggest change in the way we used mobile phones in the last decade came with Apple's Iphone. It certainly wasn't the phone's mediocre hardware or the fact that it looked better than anything out there. In fact, it was Apple's gift to the whole mobile industry, the shift away from expensive hardware iterations to relatively cheap software. After the Iphone, devices are no longer judged on their hardware specifications alone but also on the applications they can run.
This gift, of sorts, allowed Apple to get away with charging an above average price for hardware that was, at best, below average. Leveraging the considerable effort Steve Jobs put into building up the Apple brand, the Iphone gave mobile operators a headache, aside from having to give a cut of their call revenue to Apple. As devices based on other platforms such as Android and Blackberry also got their own app stores, mobile operators weren't able to provide homogeneous experiences throughout their product ranges.
While there's always been a degree of service level fragmentation throughout an operator's range thanks to hardware differences, devices with similar hardware characteristics were showing a gaping disparity in functionality. As Apple's App Store has grown, this particular snowball effect made Jobs' Mob increasingly happy as the attractiveness of its device grew thanks to the hard work of developers, who bend over backwards to meet Apple's draconian App Store policies. Luckily for mobile operators and more importantly, users, Antenna Software's latest mobility platform might break the device to app store link.
The idea behind Antenna's AMP platform is the ability for application developers to not worry about a particular device but rather the functionality of their code. The firm's latest version of AMP will see it support the Android platform in addition to the Iphone, Blackberry and Symbian's S60. The idea of not supporting a particular platform irks Jim Hemmer, president and CEO of Antenna Software, who frankly says that his company's interests is best served by "supporting all platforms". To that end, Hemmer also mentioned that AMP will also support Microsoft's upcoming Windows Phone 7 Series mobile operating system.
For developers who are used to writing platform specific code, AMP 3.0 will sound a lot like the troubled J2ME platform. That ultimately fell by the wayside because of the idiosyncrasies in the software and its inability to isolate the developer from the low level hardware intricacies of the device itself, something which is at the core of all Java platforms. AMP however doesn't try and prescribe a particular programming language or development environment, instead offering a rudimentary conversion service allowing mobile operators to run device agnostic app stores.
AMP brings further possibilities to the table, with firms able to run their own branded app stores to employees and the public at large. The idea of having branded app stores may sound similar to Coke's ill advised attempt at flogging DRM encrusted music, but Hemmer is keen to point out that for brands, the ability to wrap their name on applications is vital to build up recognition. However, it isn't the idea of having a caramel flavoured beverage app store that makes the AMP platform attractive. Rather, it is the ability for operators and developers to free themselves from the shackles of Apple that should be a boon for all parties concerned.
Hemmer wouldn't be drawn on which operators are likely to provide their own app store in the near future but did opt for the safe, "we're currently in negotiations" answer. Although it's a shame that Antenna didn't announce mobile operator partners, the firm recently revealed a tie-up with AT&T in the US to market Workbench, an enterprise oriented application framework for firms that gave up fighting the preferences of employees who want to make a fashion statement rather than having a functional device.
Although Hemmer was keen to stress that Workbench wasn't an app store, the potential is clear to see. Features such as authentication and the ability to control deployment of applications could easily be extended to include billing. Workbench, by using the local storage features in HTML5, is able to bring some resemblance of multi-tasking to the Iphone, something which we may see in the upcoming Iphone 4 software. Again, Hemmer wasn't willing to provide firm details on which mobile operators Workbench would appear on outside of the US, but did say the content delivery platform was indeed coming.
Workbench, although impressive, shouldn't be a benchmark for AMP to beat as the two have fundamentally different goals. Workbench is about providing a walled garden for enterprises to deploy applications. AMP on the other hand should enable available applications on the majority of mobile platforms. For mobile operators, the ability to provide a single content delivery platform should level the playing field for those products in the operator's portfolio that aren't graced with the fruity toymaker's marketing halo.
For developers who think that AMP might be an easy way to avoid the censors on Apple's store they will be disappointed. Hemmer was frank in saying that some sort of control will need to be retained by those brands who want to portray a certain public image. So it's unlikely that we'll see a Walt Disney app store putting out an app based on Song of the South.
Mobile operators may look at Hemmer's offering and feel that it represents the only viable alternative to simply taking what Apple is offering and undermining the rest of their product range. Developers on the other hand will see AMP as a way of getting their software out to more devices without the investment in their most precious commodity: time. For Apple, more so than Google, should AMP based app stores take off, Jobs' Mob will see its significant investment in promoting its own App Store take a hit.
Punters, however, are the ones who should be most excited at the launch of such an applications framework. It's hard to see how being able to get apps for just about any device will be a bad thing. The question is how long will it take for a mobile operator to step up and provide its customers with access to the applications they deserve. µ
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