Exclusive: Verizon's Haller opens up on V Cast Apps vs. Android Market

Greg Haller, Verizon Wireless' newly-minted vice president of consumer solutionswith Greg Haller, Verizon Wireless' vice president of consumer solutions

When Verizon Wireless (NYSE:VZ) mounted its first Verizon Developer Community Conference in July 2009, the operator's V Cast Apps storefront was still in embryo. Touting a collaborative developmental environment highlighted by open network APIs, streamlined go-to-market processes, hands-on technical support and carrier billing mechanisms, V Cast Apps also appealed to the developer community by promising to eliminate registration fees as well as charges for application testing and certification. But the store struggled to get off the ground--originally slated to go live by the end of 2009, V Cast Apps instead launched to minimal fanfare in late March 2010, rolling out across selected BlackBerry smartphones. 

In the wake of Verizon's second VDC Conference, held in Las Vegas in mid-September, V Cast Apps is poised for a major expansion. Verizon Wireless confirmed it is now accepting Android applications, and will introduce the store on selected Android 2.2-based smartphones in the near future. The timing could not be better: Developer frustration over Google's Android Market is at a crescendo, due largely to issues facing developers looking to distribute and bill for premium applications. Prior to an expansion announced Sept. 30, developers in only nine countries were able to distribute paid apps via Android Market, with paid apps available in just 14 of the 46 countries that the storefront serves. (Following Android Market's expansion, developers in 29 international markets may now distribute premium apps, with purchases available to consumers in 32 markets.) In addition, consumers must register for a Google Checkout account in order to download paid Android applications, except in locations where operator billing is available. Also vexing developers: An Android Market return policy allowing consumers to return a downloaded app within 24 hours for a full refund.

Time will tell whether V Cast Apps emerges as the alternative distribution and marketing channel Android developers are clamoring for, but early signs are positive. During his VDC Conference opening keynote, Greg Haller, Verizon Wireless' newly-minted vice president of consumer solutions, said more than 5,000 developers have now submitted software to V Cast Apps, lured by the store's promise of "choice, opportunity and simplicity." Following the keynote, FierceDeveloper spoke to Haller about what's ahead for the VDC program, the future of V Cast Apps and how the store compares and contrasts with Android Market.

FierceDeveloper: You're new at the VDC helm. What do you see as your biggest challenge moving forward?

Haller: There's more opportunity and upside than there is challenge. But the biggest challenge is differentiating ourselves from the other marketplaces out there. Personally, I don't think that will be hard. But we need to differentiate [V Cast Apps] in the consumer's mind, and to help them understand what the value is of our app store. A lot of that comes from the quality of the applications and the ability to discover them more easily.

A big piece of this is carrier billing. I know there have been times when I think "You know, I just don't want to pull out my credit card. I don't want to do this right now." That's going to differentiate us.

The competition is going to make everybody better. We're inspired by the work other app stores do. Hopefully we can come in, be creative and try to push the envelope, and make everyone else more creative. And when you do that, the consumer wins.

FierceDeveloper: There's been a lot of developer angst over Android Market's lack of billing options as well as its refund policy*. How will V Cast Apps set itself apart, and how will it be a more hospitable environment for consumers and developers alike?

Haller: I view V Cast Apps as a complementary market. We don't have a charter that says "Hey, let's drive Android Market off the device by creating this incredible experience." We want to create an incredible experience to give consumers more choices.

It's a tough question. I think we differentiate through carrier billing, by high quality--we test all concepts before they go on the devices, and we make sure customers are going to get it. We may not have 150,000 apps--we may have a smaller number. But we'll be differentiated by having high-quality apps that work, coupled with carrier billing.

We're also in a position to offer merchandising to developers. When there are 100,000 apps, it's a little more difficult to do merchandising and push you up to the front, as compared to when you have a smaller number.

FierceDeveloper: It does seem like there is a perception that Verizon wants to push other app stores off its devices. Where do you think that idea came from? BlackBerry App World has existed comfortably on devices alongside V Cast Apps since it launched six months ago.

Haller: We've certainly heard that said. I think there are a small number of people with a big voice thanks to blogs or the Internet--they post these different things, and we hear them. If you went to the mass market and asked that question, I think they view Verizon as a trusted brand. They know they're going to get quality. We've established that in the marketplace over the past 10 years.

This is a natural transition. If you look at products like our VZ Navigator solution, that's not a free application, but a lot of customers pay for it and they appreciate the value and the quality that goes into it.

FierceDeveloper: You've said that Samsung's Android tablet will be one of the devices that run applications from V Cast Apps. But it's my understanding that Google itself has said not all Android apps are going to be optimized for tablets, because of screen sizes and resolutions and things like that. How are you going to deal with that?

Haller: I think you answered that a little bit--the developers that are going to write for that tablet device are going to have to deal with screen size and resolution and everything else. When you go to the Droid X, you're going to see a pretty robust set of applications, and when you look at the tablet world, it will trail, but it will follow.

The tablet is still a little bit unknown--iPad set the bar there, but we have some devices that I think are going to put a challenge there and put us in a competitive position. Once developers see this, they'll realize it's important to write for those devices as well.

FierceDeveloper: Looking into the future, are there going to be other operating system-specific V Cast Apps stores, perhaps for Windows Phone/Windows Mobile?

Haller: When we launched, we said RIM (NASDAQ:RIMM) would be first, and then we'll follow up with others. As long as we feel like we can get scale and customers have a demand for it, then absolutely. We expect big things from all of our manufacturers. We have an expectation they'll continue to innovate and deliver high-quality products on all operating systems, whether it's one that we've got in our arsenal today or one we don't.

If it makes sense for us, we'll continue to expand V Cast Apps. The model is working--it works on BlackBerry today, and with Android, which skews more consumer, these applications will fly. I think it's going to jump the number of applications that are downloaded, purchased and used.

FierceDeveloper: What do you want to do next to continue to nurture and evolve Verizon's relationship with the developer community? Where do you hope to be next year, when the third VDC event rolls around?

Haller: When I took this job, one of my first questions was "What do our developers think about us?" The response was "Hey, they love us." And I think that's where we need to move.

We've got to be able to deliver on our promises and be quick. If we say we're going to get an application through the process in a timely manner, we need to follow up with that. We don't have room for any more excuses. We can't afford to lose credibility with developers--we're fighting for their attention just like every other app store is.

At the end of next year, when we survey participants at the end of the conference, what I'm looking for is if we've made a breakthrough improvement in their opinion of us and how they do business with us, in terms of a contracting perspective, from a development standpoint and an education and training standpoint--meaning, "How do I get my apps through the process faster?" Do they view us as a partner, or as this carrier that's putting in boundaries? My opinion is we need to be a partner, and help them be successful.

* Editor's note: Following this interview, Verizon Wireless clarified details of its V Cast Apps refund policy. "[The policy is the] same for customers as with our other applications (like the Get It Now/Media Center apps) because [premium downloads] will appear on their bills," a Verizon Wireless spokesperson wrote in an email. "They'll have to check their bills and, if there are questions, contact us." Refunds are then deducted from developer payments during the settlement process.