Delivering an appealing set of mobile applications to consumers is not without its challenges, even for a company with the scale of Vodafone Group. The developer ecosystem is characterised by a mixture of small and large developers, with a handful of the former complemented by large numbers of the latter, and with companies in both camps requiring different levels of engagement and support. And the introduction of new developer options such as WAC-backed technologies complicate the picture further.
Vodafone has already used a number of methods to engage with the developer community, with Hemant Madan, Head of Developer Marketing for Vodafone Internet Services (pictured), arguing that in order to succeed the company has to be proactive with its efforts. “Whenever we talk about developer engagement, it’s not a question of us sitting back and waiting for the developer to come to us. You have to take the horse to the water and not bring the water to the horse, always,” he says.
According to Madan, the company’s efforts fall roughly into two categories. For developers looking to work with the technologies developed by JIL, which have now evolved to form part of WAC, Vodafone is providing “deeper technical support, handholding,” due to its advanced knowledge of the technologies and issues involved. This leads on to assistance with distribution once apps are ready for the market. In contrast, for developers working with established technologies such as Android, Java or Symbian, which are used on devices in the Vodafone handset portfolio, the focus is more on how Vodafone can help with distribution and promotion of products to consumers.
As part of its strategy to improve its engagement with the developer community, Vodafone has recently sponsored events such as DroidCon in Germany and Mobile 2.0, and it is working with groups including Mobile Monday. In addition, it already has a number of relationships with developers and brands through its previous Vodafone live! mobile internet activities, which can be carried forward into the mobile app market.
Vodafone has also, over the years, run several different competitions designed to attract the developer community. Madan notes: “The basic, fundamental reasons for doing these competitions are innovation and motivation, as well as demonstrating Vodafone’s commitment to fostering a healthy information system in the developer space. Any content business that we run depends on partners and developers and a healthy ecosystem behind it.”
This year the company has run two main events: AppStar, which was intended to boost developer interest in the JIL/WAC widget platform and which had a prize fund of EUR1 million distributed in smaller chunks, and Mobile Clicks, which was open to a wider group with “a great idea for a mobile site service or application,” with a EUR150,000 pot. According to Madan, in addition to looking further than apps, Mobile Clicks also takes “an entrepreneurial perspective,” and as a result also looks at the management team and the potential to create a sustainable business as well as the product or service itself.
The winner of the most recent Mobile Clicks was Cardmobili, developer of an application which aggregates customer loyalty cards, and enables retailers to push vouchers and reward points to subscribers. This company has apps products available for a range of platforms including Android, BlackBerry, Java, Windows Mobile and Windows Phone 7, iPhone and – perhaps unsurprisingly – Vodafone 360/JIL. As first prize winner, the 12-person company landed EUR100,000 in cash, which it said it would invest in marketing, and to encourage sign-ups among consumers and retail partners. The app is said to be “already successful in Portugal, North America, and elsewhere in Europe.”
The events are proving popular with the developer community. “We are finding that app developers are keen to get involved in this for multiple reasons: one is that it gives them a platform to gain some recognition, and get their name in the market because ultimately it’s not just Vodafone they work with, they typically work with other carriers or OEM shops and so on. And it also gives them experience and exposure. And in the case of Cardmobili or [2010 runner-up] Roulette Cricket, they get some cash to start investing into their activities,” Madan says.
“Innovation obviously is one of the criteria that we look at, alongside originality, commercial feasibility, customer demand – if a developer has gone out and done some consumer research which really proves that the service or app has a high demand, that’s a plus point.”
Building momentum for WAC
Madan is optimistic about the potential of the Wholesale Applications Community. Although Vodafone was the only operator to go live with JIL-based widgets, it has 10,000 apps in its catalogue, reflecting the fact that there was a “reasonably vibrant community” supporting the technology. “Could it have been better? Probably yes. But I think we had a reasonably vibrant developer community with a big momentum behind it, and with the WAC activity coming on, the momentum starts to pick-up.”
One thing that could impact momentum is the hiatus as the JIL technology is incorporated into WAC, with the group believed to be working toward a May 2011 launch of stores – although some reports suggest that Vodafone is looking to launch in February 2011. Madan says: “there is a bit of a wait for the developers just to see how the WAC thing takes off, but the way that WAC is taking the JIL assets itself and using them as a base is a very positive sign. That means the momentum that has already been built in the market will accelerate, rather than having a chasm in the middle which we would have to cross again. The momentum is there, WAC is taking the right steps in moving forward using the JIL assets as a base, which will be really helpful.”
Where WAC has a significant role to play is in easing fragmentation in the market, and in broadening the potential developer community beyond those already involved in mobile app development. “Today if you want to build apps you have to build using Java or native, which produces some challenges, because you have to be a programmer to be able to write using those kind of technologies. With the proliferation of widgets coming in, especially with the WAC initiatives, there is the potential to stimulate the whole apps market, because suddenly a new breed of developers, typically the web developers of today, are able to enter.”
“With the supply of the apps growing bigger, the potential for the apps market is also higher. It will bring its own challenges in terms of discovery, and that’s where we feel the differentiating features we have today, recommendations and serving the right content, will be valuable.”