Orange, not MS, is SPV smartphone app-breaker in chief

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The dastardly control-freak company responsible for throttling application development for the Orange SPV smartphone is Orange, not Microsoft, it transpires. With Smartphone 2002 Microsoft provides the mechanisms for developers to produce applications and actually have them run on the target platform, but it leaves the final say so to the networks, so in this case Orange is saying no. Or, perhaps, pay me.

It's all to do with applications signing, and although this is frequently confused with certification (regrettably, this is precisely what we dozily did in our article last week) the two are quite separate processes. Certification is a process whereby Microsoft-registered developers can achieve a 'designed for Microsoft smartphone' logo for their apps, but it is simply a quality-control system, and of itself doesn't determine whether or not an app will physically be allowed to run on the hardware.

That's where signing comes in. Applications running on Microsoft's Smartphone 2002 platforms are intended to be signed, and the decision as to how the signing process is applied is made by the carrier, which in this case is Orange, which has decided to turn it on. This applies even to Microsoft-signed applications - if they're not signed by Orange as well, then the phone won't run them.

Microsoft does however seem to bear some responsibility for the confusion among developers. Prior to launch the Orange signing requirement hadn't been implemented, and the Microsoft SDK allowed developers to use their own developer certificate, which comes with the SDK, to create signed apps which would run on other hardware so long as that hardware had the correct developer certificate. So you could easily run away with the delusion that all would be sweetness and light come the launch.

Microsoft's decision to leave the final signing say-so to the carriers is understandable, because it dangles the revenue carrot in front of them. And in addition to this there's the comfort factor - if they can control precisely what runs on devices on their networks, then they can minimise the possibility of nimda-style horrors running amuk across them (no, we don't think they really can either, but if anybody thinks the networks can keep a lid on this, it's got to be the networks).

One might however observe that the mobile phone networks are singularly ill-equipped to be given the absolute right to determine which applications can or cannot run on their networks, and their customers' hardware. In general, they intend to sell applications themselves, and many of them won't yet even have thought about the possibility of third party applications being developed, far less about the importance of stimulating that development in order to make the platform take off.

They're likely more concerned with immediate revenue coming through channels they can understand. They could, for example, charge corporate customers a fee in order to be able to sign their own code, meaning those customers would be in a position to ensure that only apps they themselves trusted could be run. They could also run 'approved' developer schemes where they were paid a fee for every application sold, and/or where they themselves were the intermediary selling the application.

But there's a queer side-effect - networks using certificates in this way will effectively be making a potentially open platform proprietary, because applications signed for network A are obviously not going to run on network B. Developers won't be able just to write the app and have it run, and they won't necessarily be able to just get it signed once and have it run everywhere - they'll have to pay the rake-off for each and every major network that wants one.

The key to this process of closing up the platform is that signing has been made compulsory, and that is Microsoft's fault. If it were the case that the customer could choose whether or not to run unsigned apps (as with Windows), then you'd have a less controlled, less secure platform with a far greater chance of achieving developer momentum. And, as Alan Cox puts it about PC hardware, if you can't decide what runs on the hardware you bought, then you don't own it really - whoever decides does. ®

SPV bug update: The problem some people are having in dialing numbers from their SPV contact book is, it transpires, to do with the format of the numbers. The SPV seems to have difficulty dealing with non-numeric characters. So, if you've got spaces in the numbers in your book, or you transferred your contacts from Outlook and it had inserted +(44) in front of all your UK numbers, there's your difficultly.

One of the advantages Microsoft has in the mobile phone wars, so some analysts tell us, is the ability to integrate tightly with its own PC apps. Oh, really...?

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