Mobile Network App Stores: Utter, utter rubbish today

That’s the fifth presentation that I’ve been to — in as many weeks — featuring some kind of Mobile Operator attempting to explain to a room full of application developers just what they’re trying to do to support mobile development.

My most recent experience was watching the chap from Orange France at Mobile Monday Paris this evening. He did a credible and professional pitch. It all looked very good. If this was 2003, I’d have been dead impressed.

The trouble is, telling the planet you’ve got 50 million customers across Europe is a little bit disingenuous.

The Orange chap wasn’t helped by the DeviceAnywhere guy — Christian — who stood up first and declared that almost five million applications are downloaded from the iTunes App Store every day.

The crowd visibly shook at that point. FIVE MILLION? A Day. They knew it was high. But nearly 5 million?

Christian did the one-two-punch by then telling us roughly 70% of those downloads are paid.

Now I was familiar with these stats roughly. But having them laid out ‘on paper’ there on the screen is rather impressive. The sheer possibilities for mobile developers are hugely, hugely significant. Yes there’s concern about the possibility of overcrowding on the App Store. Yes there’s issues with Apple’s censoring of some applications and ideas. But oh boy. What a potential marketplace.

Back to Orange. I should be clear, I’m not picking on the in this situation — just, this was the last operator I witnessed in person.

The poor chap.

There he was, 50 million customers, apparently. France, Spain, Belgium…

The vast majority of them completely untouchable, as far as developer is concerned.

I wasn’t blessed with the ability to understand the questions for the Orange guy at the end. Initially there were zero questions. The crowd just stayed silent. Most of us trying to compute the ’50 million customers’ statement and try and establish how many of them were ‘reachable’. How many of them could *actually* discover, pay-for and download an application via Orange’s services? And further, how many of them could re-discover the app, or *actually* discover the app on their RUBBISH handset once it’s been downloaded?

There’s only so much you can do with the Emperor’s New Clothes before the reality hits home.

50 million customers. 49 million of which couldn’t give a flying flip about downloading applications. Not through lack of demand, but through lack of discoverability.

How, precisely, are you supposed to find and engage with applications that, to be frank, your Motorola RAZR shouldn’t even be thinking about? You might want to download a wicked new Watchmen movie video game for your bollocks 2005 Samsung… but if you DO get it on to your handset (and pay a stupid amount for the privilege), it’ll be 100×100 pixels of pure rubbish. You know it. I know it. So does the consumer whenever they’ve tried it.

And for those who really, really stick at it — and manage to get the game downloaded to their handset, all they have to do is put it next to their friend (who’s using their iPhone as a steering wheel in one of the latest and beautiful looking racing games – for example) and you look like a total numpty.

It’s the equivalent of driving your girlfriend to the prom in a wheelbarrow kitted out with pedals whilst everyone else arrives in something with a roof, at least.

I’ve yet to see a service offering from a mobile operator in this arena that looks any good. Any good at all.

There are fundamental flaws with everything I’ve seen. Everything.

If it’s not the way the operator’s tried to piece the store together, it’s their idiotic testing and contracting rubbish that’s a huge barrier.

And even if it’s looking half decent. Even if you suspend your disbelief and think, ‘Yeah, I’ll stick 50k of MY money into developing for [operatorname]’, you have that nagging doubt. The real, nagging doubt — the 60ft elephant in the corner of the room making lots of high pitched mooing noises whilst everyone does their best to ignore it. And the smell.

Yeah that’s the smell of rotting handset populations.

When you sit back and ask the operator questions like ‘Ok, so just how many people can access your store front?’ they’ll give you super sounding answers.

5 million.

10 million.

80% at launch.

Ok, sorry – did you say HAVE access? CAN access? Or… do you have any up to date stats on just how many of your customers are using Nokia 3000 series devices or similar? 5%? Right. Wipe them out for a start. How many of them are on PAYG and haven’t been tracked with a new IMEI for 3 years plus? 28%? Right. Let’s move them from the mess. How many of them are using Sony Ericsson? Shit. 35%? Really? 35%? Geez. Wipe them from the slate. Right… so…

Ok how many of your customers are using functional but functionally useless handsets for us? You know, good looking Samsungs, LGs, the kind of handsets that simply cannot be upgraded and are glorified alarm clocks? ANOTHER 20%?

So just how many customers can you point in my direction from next month?


Wait… Wait? Did… did someone say iPhone App Store?

There’s no wonder. NO WONDER the vast majority of the mobile developing planet is sticking with and heading on to iPhone. It’s not brilliant. It’s not definitive, in any way. But it works. The dream is at least half real. The dream of selling 1,000 apps per hour at a tenner each for 3 weeks… that’s REAL. It’s achievable. There’s a lot you’d need to do. But you CAN achieve it.

With most operators you’re looking at an embedded population who — fraknly — wouldn’t be able to find an application from the start menu if you automatically provisioned it over-the-air.

If you’ve got 50,000 pounds to spend on developing applications, you’ll most certainly listen to the operators. It sounds good. It’s nice to actually *meet* people from operators. Most of the mobile operator teams have spent the last five years hiding away from developers. From industry. They’ve had token ‘outreach’ attempts. But now they’re out there, shaking hands, swapping cards.

It’s alluring, it really is. I can see it in the eyes of the people I meet — and I meet a lot of mobile developers all the time. It’s hugely alluring to be able to chat to someone from an operator, finally. To be able to dream of marketing your brilliant app to the operator’s customers.

But that’s a pipe dream. You have to face reality. That 50k you’re investing needs to be risked in a market where there’s a high possibility of success.

That isn’t on an operator portal, despite the gorgeous facts they roll out. X million customers. X million in marketing support. Blah blah blah.

Here’s a case in point. A chap came up to me tonight. He’s an iPhone developer. He told me the name of the app and said it was available in the UK store as of today. I flipped up my iPhone, typed the app’s name in — and within seconds I was downloading it.

That is the only way this can work.

If there are any more hops, any more steps — you’re screwed.

So, operators. Show me the hops. Show me the money. Show me the developers selling thousands of application downloads per hour. And I’ll smile. I’ll truly smile.

Until that time, I’m not at all surprised at the amount of resources being directed into iPhone and Android development. If you’re app developing at the moment, and hoping to make cash, it’s iPhone, it’s Ovi, it’s Android. In that order.

Someday soon the operators just might have a proposition that doesn’t include an elephant in the room. I can’t wait until that day.

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