The mobile app ecosystem has been developing successfully for several years, but has done so largely free of the influence of mobile operators. But there are plenty of ways in which developers can benefit from working more closely with the telcos. The data and capabilities that operators possess have the potential to give apps the extra edge needed to stand out in the crowded apps marketplace. And operators can also help address discoverability challenges.

Mobile transaction hub provider OpenMarket is one company trying to bridge the gap. A division of Amdocs, it powers a range of bespoke network services for operators – such as mobile payments, push notifications, messaging and CRM tools to keep track of mobile users and apps – and also works with large enterprises, digital agencies and app developers.

Associate director of marketing for EMEA at OpenMarket, Andrew Darling (pictured) spoke to Mobile Apps Briefing about how developers can boost the quality of their apps and benefit from working more closely with operators.  

The value of APIs and hub services
In order to fully exploit mobile, developer platforms need to be integrated with networks, and developers need to make sure their apps exploit the unique characteristics of the technology.

“Developers creating applications or indeed developing any kind of mobile services need to sync their offering with these network capabilities, so they can make them more relevant and useful to mobile users,” said Darling.

One way in which developers can tap into these unique mobile elements is through the use of APIs. For example, OpenMarket has an API for push notifications, which can be used to keep apps fresh and extend their lifecycle.

There are other services where, to a greater or lesser extent, developers are also now seeing value. OpenMarket supports in-app billing, location-based services, mobile proximity marketing and offers an SDK called Seen that developers can use to add video chat to apps.

Darling said the challenge is uniting elements such as location-based services, alerts, brand engagement via push notifications and intelligent mobile wallets to encourage users and merchants to also get involved.

“Mobile service hubs like OpenMarket add value here by driving new high-volume, data-intensive traffic over networks,” he noted.

Making in-app purchasing a success
The main challenge for app developers is reducing the cost of user acquisition and retention. The use of in-app billing is therefore an area OpenMarket is keen to help developers with, as it provides a way to secure revenue after the app has been acquired by the user. In order to benefit from this, developers need to make sure their apps are attractive enough to encourage users to spend money in them once they have them.

“Making your app relevant and also refreshing enough so that you can continue to do in-app purchases – I think that’s one of the major challenges for app developers and it’s one of the things that we’re trying to help them with,” Darling said.

OpenMarket is working with developers to improve their apps with interactive messaging, mobile vouchering, crediting and ticketing, and push notifications.

“It’s encouraging the user into more and more web content, to engage with it and consume it and hopefully to pay for it via operator direct billing APIs or using a smart messaging marketing platform which we enable for customers,” Darling continued.

And with growing interest in HTML5-based web apps for mobile devices, another challenge is to work out how to effectively provide in-app purchasing in a mobile web environment. “There’s a lot of untapped in-app purchase opportunities out there and what we’re trying to do is help developers mine these,” he said.

Keeping it simple – how SMS can boost apps
OpenMarket offers SMS-based mobile CRM services, which Darling believes will become more important as businesses look to increasingly drive users to apps and improve the performance of apps that are already out there. 

Retailers could, for instance, send an SMS alert when a potential customer passes by a store to promote an offer or push out a free download.

Although over-the-top (OTT) messaging services are cannibalising P2P mobile messaging, application-to-peer messaging is increasing, according to Darling, with smartphone users actually responding better to SMS-based promotional campaigns. On this basis, SMS technology still has plenty of life left in it.

The role of operators
Darling feels that the role of operators is not being diminished by the rise of apps and OTT players, as they continue to have valuable data and services that can be used to boost the ecosystem.
“By enabling innovation in an open way, operators can continue to be at the centre of the data services value chain. This shift is already happening. Major operators have opened up their portals and are starting to turn them from walled gardens into jumping off points for the mobile web,” he said.
Operators can also assist in the discovery of content and services by taking a leaf out of Amazon’s book. Amazon allows small companies and individual developers to build their own applications using the web giant’s catalogue of APIs. The resulting applications that appear on the Amazon retail site then boost sales for Amazon.
“Amazon could have taken a tightly controlled approach to their service, but by exposing APIs, they have enabled a whole ecosystem of affiliates and suppliers to grow up around them,” he said.

The process is also made simple by the fact users can use the technology simply by accepting an online licence rather than having to meet a company executive and sign a contract.
He also feels operators could work more closely with web companies to take advantage of their capabilities rather than just relying on the data or tools they possess. “While the operator may have its own location lookup from the network, or be able to extract it from a handset’s integral GPS API, they often won’t have a nice, familiar user-friendly map like Google’s or Bing’s,” Darling said.

Tim Ferguson