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Telcos gang up to snatch in-app cash from Google, Apple

Nine operators draw up WAC API blueprint

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Updated*: MWC 2012 Nine operators have implemented an in-application API for the Wholesale Applications Community, so AJAX apps will soon be able to empty your pockets just like the competition can.

The new API – supported by AT&T, Deutsche Telecom and Telefonica among others – permits a WAC application to bill the user for in-application events such as upgrades or level unlocking. The same service is already offered by Google's Marketplace (on Android) and iTunes (for iOS Devices). But while those services bill events to the external account held by the marketplace – and ultimately to the credit card held by that marketplace – WAC applications will add transactions to the existing mobile-phone bill.

Not that this is unique: Google has done deals with some operators to link Marketplace accounts to mobile bills, and Nokia did a host of deals when it still had aspirations for the Ovi brand. But the WAC's premise is platform independence, and the idea is that in-application billing will remove the last incentive to develop platform-specific code.

WAC applications are developed using AJAX technologies, with JavaScript being central, but JavaScript applications can't access a device's camera, let alone the operator billing system, so the WAC has defined extensions to provide access to such functionality. Applications are only permitted to use those extensions if they're digitally signed by the WAC, as verified by the WAC-compliant handset* on which they're run: the idea being that the same app can run equally well on Android, Bada, BlackBerry and anything else as long as it is WAC-compliant.

The WAC then operates as a warehouse, providing a portfolio of applications from which app stores can select (and price) content as they wish. So users never buy apps from the WAC, they buy them from AT&T, Telefonica or whomever has signed up to flog WAC content (and pay the WAC margin).

Operators desperately want the WAC to succeed, in the hope of clawing back the ground already lost to Apple and Google, and rapidly being ceded to Microsoft. But the fact that it is run by network operators has not worked to the organisation's advantage, with political infighting dogging development and progress being painfully slow. Device support is still very spartan, only marginally better than last year when all the WAC could show was a JavaScript clock on a Samsung Bada phone.

Even when running on a supported handset, there are things a WAC application just can't do – such as running in the background while waiting for an event – so native development will always be necessary. Over on the official WAC Developer Forums, the 401 participants also report problems getting applications listed in operator stores, and realising that so few Android phones come with the necessary WAC runtime.

In-app billing might help operators take WAC more seriously, but in other markets it has not proved the money-spinner it was expected to be. The widely accepted perception was that games in particular would benefit hugely from the "Insert Coin To Continue" effect, but it's telling that the Mighty Eagle (an in-app purchase for Angry Birds) has been superseded in the latest version by The Mighty Dragon, who'll come and dispatch any number of egg-stealing pigs for free.

Apple is never going to support WAC applications anyway, as it has nothing to gain by doing so, and only by putting huge pressure on the other device manufacturers will network operators get wider support for the standard. The WAC will be running developer days over the next year, with significant cash prizes for the best apps (AT&T is stumping up $20,000), but it's the device manufacturers that the WAC needs to bribe, not the JavaScript hackers, and in that regard the WAC isn't presenting the united front it needs. ®

* The WAC collared your correspondent to point out that the billing APIs (and those alone) are also available to web pages, and so are not limited to the handful of phones supporting the rest of the WAC platform, which can only be a good thing.

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