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App-wielding hordes get global access, billing system

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Vodafone is set to announce a standard set of APIs, allowing third parties to create applications integrated with Vodafone servers around the world, including tapping the operator's billing system for micropayments.

In an announcement billed as (yet again) "redefining the mobile internet," Vodafone is unveiling a set of standard APIs that will work in every region in which the operator has a presence. This will allow developers to create applications and roll them out around the world, as long as they don't mind their market being limited to Vodafone's 289 million customers.

Operators have long allowed third parties access to internal services, particularly SMSC's for messaging and often with access to billing systems, too. But this has generally been on a case-by-case basis and only sharing limited functionality. Not only does that require developers to work with each operator in turn, but platforms are often fragmented even within the same operator - particularly where international expansion has been managed through acquisition - so developers often have to negotiate, and code, for every operator, in every region.

Not that today's announcement is the first attempt to address this problem: Vodafone makes much of the new API's ability to bill for small transactions, allowing developers to include the "insert coin to continue" functionality they've been hoping for. But Vodafone is also part of the "PayForIt" consortium, which provides the same functionality across multiple networks. PayForIt operates though gateways that take a cut of the money, so developers will have to decide on the value of being cross-network.

It's also worth noting that these new APIs are coming out of the Joint Innovation Lab (JIL), so should be applicable to the other JIL members in time - adding Verizon and China Mobile would put the JIL in charge of applications provided to more than 700 million mobile-phone users.

Obviously applications will need to be certified to have access to the APIs, something the JIL was already planning along with on-device APIs to allow (suitably signed) widgets with access to local, and network, resources - all of which should be revealed over the summer.

If this all sounds a bit familiar then it should - it's just what was promised, and in some ways delivered, by Qualcomm's BREW platform. Customers have rebelled against the level of control exercised by BREW operators, and Qualcomm has failed to expand the idea much beyond the USA. The JIL might prove a more benign controlling authority, but it will remain in charge of what you can do with your mobile phone. ®

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