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Operator gang gunning for iTunes

Won't be as good, but what the hell

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The Wholesale Application Community has been laying out its philosophy ahead of a promised business plan next month, and all-out war with Apple next February.

The WAC is a coalition of network operators who've been looking at Apple's business model and wondering why they're not making any money out of it, with a view to launching an iTunes App Store competitor on which they can make money, even if it's not as good as the Apple experience.

"The industry has decoupled application revenues from the network investment required to support them," interim WAC CEO Tim Raby is telling journalists in briefings today. Basically the operators are building the networks and Apple is making the money, which isn't what the operators want.

Currently operators make their money selling voice minutes, but those are disappearing fast, and flat-rate internet access isn't going to make up for the lost revenue - which explains the broad interest in the WAC.

That interest extends to Vodafone, China Mobile, Sprint, Wind, Verizon, T-Mobile and a dozen other operators of all shapes and sizes. The GSMA is involved, along with the OMTP. Handset manufacturers Samsung and LG are signed up too.

Samsung is of course pushing its own native platform, Bada, but given that the WAC is all about AJAX-based widgets it's expected to coexist with native platforms. Those widgets will be based on a standard API somewhere between the Joint Innovation Lab (JIL) and the OMTP's BONDI project, almost certainly created by folding both the JIL and the OMTP into the WAC to make life simpler for everyone.

We won't know that until July, when the business plan gets announced. That will be followed by API documentation in September and a developer event in November, with the first commercial launch scheduled for February next year.

We do know the APIs will include the usual Javascript extensions for interaction with local applications and providing persistent storage, but also APIs for connecting to the OneAPI which operators are hoping will be their unique selling point over native applications such as those developed for the iPhone.

The OneAPI allows an application, running on a handset, to interact with the operator's infrastructure though standard APIs. Version one is limited to SMS management, location information and basic billing events, version two (which should be ready for the WAC) includes connection profiles, queries on remaining (pre-paid) credit, 3-way calling and in-call notifications when another call is received.

Apple can do most of that, though the operator should be able to offer a more flexible billing platform and one integrated with pre-paid credit. Server-based call management is beyond even Cupertino's capabilities - for the moment at least, so expect to see the WAC pushing such applications when it launches.

But even with such differentiation it won't be easy to provide an iTunes-like experience across different platforms, as Tim Raby admits: "Hit a whole lot of people with a slightly less-good service then that's enough for most people."

The good Mr Raby likes to talk about how fragmented desktop operating systems have been united under the web, proposing the same thing can happen to mobile phones though the WAC. But in reality desktop computing isn't fragmented - it's barely a duopoly - and we're still waiting for the web-top to remove our reliance on Microsoft Windows.

Even more suspect is Raby's assertion that mobile operators like working together, as demonstrated by their interoperable voice services. He seems to have forgotten that in most countries an existing monopoly was broken up by state intervention, and that interoperability is legally mandated rather than voluntarily implemented - or perhaps he hasn't. ®

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