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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.


  1. Great article!

    One question: say you are a developer with 50k and you decide to develop an app for a platform like Symbian. You can choose to upload to operator xxx's store, but can you not also upload to Ovi? If you can, then you are not putting all your 50k in one operator's basket – you just upload to their store as well and hope it is worth the admin time. Or, do the operators demand exclusivity?

  2. Jamie, I was viewing that fictional 50k as an entire budget. A lot of the top mobile developers I meet have a per-application budget of 50k — to perhaps do iPhone and Ovi. But there's a substantial amount of mobile developers I meet who might not have 50k in cash — perhaps 5-10k in free cash ready to burn, but they'll use maybe 20-30k's worth of 'time' (their time, the time of the other team members) to get an app to market. You want to see some kind of revenue visualisation that stands some pretty depressing tests. e.g. if we only get 50 downloads a day over 100 days, what does that mean for us? Or if we get 5,000? And so on.

    I haven't seen many examples of operators demanding exclusivity. Indeed that'd be an interesting question to put to operators. I suspect that many operators will simply bite your hand off just for you to give them the time of day at the moment — because, in reality, they're doing diddly squat to help you. Yes there's 'marketing support' (defined and budgeted exclusively by them) and yes there's 'a lot of work going into their app store' but if you need to be sure — if you have to risk that fictional 50k… where are you going to spend it?

    It's iTunes. It's Ovi. And if you're ok waiting a little while longer, it's Android too. (That's if Ovi isn't blocked by some operators… and with Ovi, you're hoping and praying the N97 is bought by people enlightened enough and enthusiastic enough to give the Ovi store a try…)

  3. Another point Jamie — many operators are outsourcing the actual running and maintenance of the store to third parties. The smart operators will have removed as many hoops as possible in the go-live process. Be careful not to waste your time signing contract after contract after contract… whilst nothing actually happens for weeks and months. I'd very much appreciate some real life examples from anyone reading. If you've got your app on to an operator store.. how did it work out for you? How is it doing today?

  4. Oh dear, are people still doing the “we have 50 million customers” pitch.

    The little cafe down my street “has a potential market of 6 million customers from all across London”. So bloody what!

    Steve, iTAGG “the sms provider that can help you reach 3 billion mobiles worldwide”

  5. Or, you could compare the 100x100px rubbish Watchmen app for your bollocks Samsung, to the sheer class that is the Watchmen app released for the iPhone.

    There's a ton of great content included, mostly not needing connectivity. Lots of potential to do future movie purchase tie-ins…

  6. I've exclusively been able to do a deal with Trevor le Chateau, vice president of partner promotions & baked beans, so that all java app developers can stick a poster on the wall of his cafe, promoting their app to the potential 6 million customers…..

  7. Yes I'd like to see the results these days. Back about 5 years ago we built a few java apps, including a London Underground one, and put it on a major UK operators portal. The downloads over an entire year were in the hundreds ;-( Oh and yes, it took about 4 months of negotiations and contract signing before we got there. So how is 2009, have things got better?

  8. The Apple Store isn't all roses –
    As easy as it is to get stuff on there – a lot of it is rubbish. You just need to read the reviews of the buggy apps that are out there. While the User Interface is nice (for both sides) is the User Experience really that great?

    Something else to consider – there are no shortage of old, crap phones. Should we (as developers & networks) cater to them or wait until they all upgrade to an iPhone?

    That's never going to happen. Besides, people with crap phones still buy games, ringtones, apps, etc. It's harder to develop for such a diverse range of underpowered devices – but I think it's a challenge worth taking up.

    Operator app stores aren't wonderful – and it's hard to get your content on them. We've been too long in changing because we've been focused on big deals with big companies. That's no longer a perfect business model.

    [Not speaking for Vodafone, my benevolent employer]

  9. Ewan, yes totally agree with all you say about operator app stores. Clearly the numbers touted by them are outright lies (e.g. the 50 million), even if they don’t realise that, they’re just towing the party line.

    It has got to be one of the biggest ironies in the world today that mobile network operators are among the people who understand mobile the least, or rather what mobile has become. (Heresy! Burn me at the stake!). They think it’s about network interfaces, and voice calls. Yeah, sure it is. But it’s also about mobiles being the next gen of personal computer, about software and services – that work, that are open, that are easy, that are accessible to developers (to develop) and users (to use) alike. And operators REALLY don’t get this. People within them do, but not as a whole corporate mindset that actually changes things. I mean, just on the mobile web front, the amount of transcoder abuse that seriously damages developer efforts and user experience, is INCREASING. Despite the cries of developers and users.

    Anyway. Agreed on the platform priorities – for today. iPhone 1st, then Ovi (but not launched yet), then Android. But it will not be long before Ovi will be unreachably out in front. The numbers alone across S40 and S60 will make Ovi store vastly more rewarding than iPhone. Based on what we know of Ovi store today.

    One solution for operators will be for the existing big name app stores who know what they’re doing, to run the operator app stores. So T-Mobile in the UK have the right idea with their recent announcement that Nokia’s Ovi Store will power (or be rebranded as) the T-Mobile UK app store. That’s more like it. If this works, other operators should follow the same model – and actually specifically use Ovi Store as that will net the greatest rewards.

    Finally, it would be a real fallacy to think that all is bright and breezy in iPhone apps land. Cos it really, really isn’t. And discoverability is part of the problem. There are now so many apps in the app store, that most developers have a real struggle to be found. In your example, you *knew the name* and what the app did, so of course you found it quickly. Most apps are not already known by most of their potential users. That’s Huge Problem 1. Huge Problem 2 is Apple’s app approval process is now completely out of control and collapsing rapidly.
    Read this:
    and this:

    in short, new apps have a monumental struggle to even get in the iPhone app store. Let alone be discovered somehow. And if an app can’t be discovered in the iPhone app store without being super popular already, or the name known, then a developer is looking at a huge and expensive marketing campaign. And where’s the money coming from for that?

    iPhone app store is not the goose that lays the golden eggs that you and others think it is I’m afraid Ewan. As a developer I’m betting on Ovi app store, as the numbers alone (300-400 million new *potential* customers a year, for content that’s not just apps) mean far greater chance of success, and ROI.


  10. just an awesome article Ewan.

    total respect to you, and MIR in general, for being honest, open, and taking the fight to the industry.

    you got balls dude.

  11. i am behind you all the way Ewan – so what do we do about it. We need to take this a step forward, not just complain about the state of play.

  12. Alex, kudos on the reply. I never maintain that iTunes is the Golden Goose. There are flaws. But if you're a developer and you simply HAVE to make a return — SOME KIND of return, it's iTunes, iTunes, iTunes. With an excited eye on Ovi, possibly Blackberry and Android.

    It's not about being in the top 25 iPhone Apps. Not necessarily.

    If I read about a simply brilliant application that allows me to [do something, whatever] — and if I read it on your blog, Alex, I'd have an EASY method of discovery. Two clicks and I'm downloading it. And then I'm telling everyone and their dog about it too.

    Ovi looks promising, it really does.

  13. Agree with Joshr’ sentiments completely and thought my story might help some developers reading this:

    Ewan is completely right about the “50 million customers. 49 million of which couldn’t give a flying flip about downloading applications”.

    My method was to start with a mobile web application that detects and works on every browser ie. on a mobile or a PC. Then if someone wants to access your site using their mobile they must already know about accessing the web with their mobile. The trick is not to force them to download, save, wait for a text or open anything until they have had an experience of your service.

    Focus on the small percent of people who have a capable phone (thankfully it is a bit higher than the 2% Ewan referred to) as they are customers who have the greatest propensity to pay for mobile content. I’ve managed this by simply calling my mobile dating site The 3G Dating Agency. Some early critics would say this was limiting of my potential customer base but to customers it’s very helpful because it makes it quite obvious that if they’ve got a Nokia 3000 series mobile using this service is probably not going to be possible. But pop down to a local retailer and buy a 3G Phone and a data plan and they’ll be all set to go.

    Help the customer to help you so for example if they need to upgrade their mobile or get a data plan to use your service try and do a deal with a mobile phone retailer. We did this with a leading UK retailer ( and it means customers can benefit from an extra £30 of FREE credit when they buy any new phone or data plan.

    Hope this is of some help…

  14. this is just a suspicion, but i have not seen any numbers to confirm or deny it, but the apparent success is due to two things;

    1) The vast majority of iPhone purchasers have at least one other (if not multiple) Apple products, so already had a working iTunes and were bought into the apple view of the world

    2) most of the Maciban (those people for who life is on hold waiting for Sir Steve of Jobs to make announcements), are willing to *pay* *MONEY* for things as long as they are pretty. In fact the Maciban may be the solution to the global financial crisis 😉

    Most Normobs have been trained by the operators to never click or download things, as doing so is likely to lead to a giant bill the next month, so even though their S40 phone *could* in theory support lots of apps, the only thing they buy are ring-tones and wallpapers.

  15. The key point there Ewan is – “Two clicks and I'm downloading it.”

    Apple's iPhone kicked the ass out of Nokia Download! and anything else that went before it by way of sheer ease of use along.

    I would love, love, love the Ovi store to be amazing. I really hope it is.
    But it the 'store' isn't immediately obvious to your average joe, on a device that *begs* you to play with it and find out more/explore then it has no chance.

    Apple put the App store on the 'home' page. They made it easy to browse, easy to buy and easy to download & install… I mean, you've seen *that* TV ad right?… <— yeah, that one.

    If Ovi and/or Android can come anywhere near the bar set by Apple, then they might, MIGHT have a chance at emulating Apple's success.

    I don't care if _everyone in the world_ has an 'Ovi store enabled' handset – if the UI sucks, they won't sell a damn thing.

  16. Mike, you know the Orange portal still has 'THIS IS A FREE PAGE' on top of most of it's wap pages…. SCARING every customer into being very, very careful about what they click on!

  17. did not know that (BTW, how do you get at WAP pages 😉 don't think i ever visited them when in UK, not even sure if any FI operator even has them!)

    I think as Alex Kerr points out above, T-Mobile may have the best idea – Nokia builds & maintains the App Store, T-Mobile brands, bills and does customer support.

  18. I know I big up the potential of Ovi store above, but I completely agree with you James. Download! showed how bad Nokia can make things. They really have NO excuse not to make a good job of Ovi Store on either S60 or S40, and quite frankly make it as attractive and easy as iPhone appstore. If they fail on this, they fully deserve the consequences. It'll just be a shame for all the developers, and the potential. But still, lets wait and see.

  19. I know I big up the potential of Ovi store above, but I completely agree with you James. Download! showed how bad Nokia can make things. They really have NO excuse not to make a good job of Ovi Store on either S60 or S40, and quite frankly make it as attractive and easy as iPhone appstore. If they fail on this, they fully deserve the consequences. It'll just be a shame for all the developers, and the potential. But still, lets wait and see.


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