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O2 flunks Litmus test

Hops Web 2.0 bandwagon, just as wheels fall off

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UK operator O2 has just launched its latest attempt to create a mobile developer's community, ticking all the Web 2.0 boxes - just as the rest of the industry seems to be moving on.

Like the dad arriving late to the party, O2 is keen to show off their Web 2.0 credentials: Litmus features social networking, user ratings, a blog, and the ever-present "beta" tag that's so cool with the kids these days. The service, which launched today at the venue formally known as the millennium dome, provides developers with access to O2 services and support, as well as a place to showcase and distribute new applications.

This isn't O2's first attempt to encourage developers: the "Advanced Developer's Forum" (ADF) was followed by "Source O2", which focused on supporting developers, and "Revolution" which tried to get them to launch real products. Like Revolution, Litmus will bill punters for downloading applications, but unlike Revolution developers will be able to upload directly to the site with the minimum of oversight from O2.

Being able to bill for downloads puts Litmus ahead of the Android Marketplace, but this isn't just a retail community: O2 also wants to support developers creating applications for any handset on the O2 network - excepting the iPhone, of course.

It shouldn't really be surprising that Web 2.0 has only just arrived in Slough, where O2 is based - telecommunications companies move at sub-glacial speeds. This is the true convergence battleground - where internet engineers clash with telecommunications executives in a world of epic meetings and mountainous paper work.

Five years ago it was just about impossible to interest a mobile operator in any application unless it would make people talk more, or send more SMS messages. Officially the networks were excited by alternative sources of revenue, but in reality many superb applications exhausted themselves battering the doors of the network operators as the telecommunications executives held sway.

Java games were an exception - even the most jaded executive could understand selling games to kids, but smart phones only existed 'cos anyone who could afford such a pointless status symbol would make a lot of voice calls, probably while travelling internationally.

Even now O2 Litmus can only bill a customer for downloading an application - there's no mechanism for subscriptions or event billing. Developers have been crying out for such functionality for years, except for those working within the BREW walled gardens who have had access to flexible billing for years - at the price of compete operator control.

James Parton, who is heading up O2 Litmus, tells us the service will add more flexible billing next year, and points out Litmus is still a beta. Yes, O2 is proud to be launching a "beta" product - apparently this is its first time, though users of some O2 handsets might disagree.

One thing you won't see on Litmus is any iPhone applications; Apple still has the stranglehold there and isn't planning to share any time soon. But the 50 developers at this morning's launch, who came to listen to presentations from hosting companies and PR men, aren't interested in the iPhone - they want their applications to hit a wider audience. They're prepared to pretend that the aging dad trying to look 20 years younger really is a cutting-edge Web 2.0 company, if it will get them in front of the O2 customer base. ®

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