Inside operator developer programs: Can they help you build a better app?

Mobile developers can get a lot of help in the technical and business aspects of application development by joining developer programs offered by mobile operators.

Mobile operators in general have a strategic interest in helping developers because developers are the ones who come up with the creative ideas, apps and services that stimulate customer demand and drive network usage. Yet, each operator has its own specific philosophies and business considerations that influence its developer programs. FierceDeveloper talked with the leadership of the AT&T Mobility (NYSE:T), Sprint Nextel (NYSE:S) and Verizon Wireless (NYSE:VZ) developer programs to learn what they do to help developers build better apps.  

AT&T Mobility

AT&T Mobility says developers are so important to the company that its commitment to invest in the program comes directly from the company's executive management. The company demonstrates this commitment each year at the annual AT&T Developer Summit, held during the Consumer Electronics Show, when senior executives use the event to announce the company's mobility strategy for the coming year. 

Carolyn Billings

AT&T's Carolyn Billings

The AT&T developer program has evolved over the years as the mobile app market has matured. This year the program emphasizes developer events, resources for developers who want to create web apps based on HTML5, and a steady release of APIs that developers can use to add network-enhanced features to native and HTML5 apps. The company is also encouraging developers to use its Application Resource Optimizer, which can be employed to create apps that function efficiently to minimize battery consumption and use of network resources.  

"Our goal is to get the best apps for our customers through really rich partnerships with developers," said Carolyn Billings, associate vice president for the AT&T Developer Program.

Developer events are the most public "face" of the developer program. This year, in addition to its regular developer events held at trade shows and other venues, the company is hosting about 20 hackathons. The last two hackathons have each generated more than 30 new applications. Developers can win cash prizes and one winner's app was featured in an AT&T television advertisement.

One application to come out of the developer program, and one that highlights use of AT&T's resources for HTML5 development and the promotion of its APIs, is the Soundtracker music sharing service that blends Internet radio, social networking and location-based services. Billings said that Soundtracker worked with AT&T and used the company's API platform SDK for HTML5 to develop an HTML5 version of the app, specifically for AT&T devices, which takes advantage of AT&T's location, SMS and MMS APIs.

AT&T has a team of about 20 people who assist developers with their apps. Developers can work with the company at its AT&T Foundry innovation centers, which are located in Palo Alto, Calif.; Plano, Texas; and Ra'anana, Israel. 

Sprint Nextel

The focus of the Sprint Nextel developer program is to help developers take advantage of Sprint's network capabilities in their apps, help developers improve discovery of their apps in various app stores, and help them make money. The company has a few dozen people on its staff to help developers with those technical and business objectives. It has a lesser focus on helping developers create apps for various operating systems, believing that type of support is widely available through various technology-specific developer groups that are dedicated to this work.

"Our developer program is intended to participate where we add value, promote customer choice, and get out of the way when we're not needed," said Kevin McGinnis, vice president of product platforms at Sprint Nextel.


Sprint's Kevin McGinnis

Sprint does not have an app store, so applications created with services from the developer program are distributed through other app store channels.

In particular, the company encourages developers to take advantage of its sandbox environment where developers can get access to APIs to incorporate network-enabled presence, messaging, and location-based services.
For developers that want to work with Sprint to drive discovery of their apps or better ways to feature their products, Sprint has created a "Place your ad" self-service advertising program. The program enables developers to bid on advertising placement in the Sprint Zone on customer devices and on the website. It can help them monetize apps through carrier billing, its mobile billing and other capabilities.

Developers can also participate in what Sprint calls an "opportunity funnel." In this program, teams of people in the company identify promising startups in certain app categories and introduce the developers to senior executives and others at Sprint-hosted meetings.

A recent successful case study involved the social mobile app provider OneLouder. McGinnis said Sprint worked with OneLouder to help it integrate technologies and services from multiple platforms and multiple partners for a new group messaging app called Powwow Messenger. He said that Sprint was able to help OneLouder accelerate the time to market for this app.

Verizon Wireless

Verizon Wireless wants developers to know that it is innovative and open-minded about application development and that developers are very important to the company and its customer base.

The mission of its developer program is to reach out to developers, help them solve their practical development problems, optimize their apps for devices that operate on its network and get their apps out to consumers. It views all of this as helping build an ecosystem that is productive for everybody.

"We like to think that if we build a community, if people will see that we're reaching out and helping them, that applications will land on our network in front of our consumers and the whole community will benefit," said Larry Rau, director of the San Francisco Application Innovation Center for Verizon Wireless.

One app that illustrates the value of this philosophy is the mobile application discovery solutions provider, Chomp, which was acquired by Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) earlier this year. Chomp is a former participant in the Verizon's program. The Verizon team helped Chomp accomplish the data integration needed for the app and preloaded the app in Android smartphones so it could be used to search apps in the Verizon Apps storefront as well as Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) Play (then called Android Market).  While the app has now been acquired by Apple, Rau said "It was good for the community. It showed the value of search."

Rau said that Verizon has a team of about a dozen people helping application developers. At the Application Innovation Center, selected developers are able to work with Verizon engineers at no charge to optimize apps and tackle problems that need hands-on engineering support. The company also has a business development team  that will work with small and large developers to help them commercialize their apps.

Verizon's relationships with its developers are not exclusive. While the company will help developers' work to create apps for distribution in the Verizon App Store, it will also help developers get their apps in other stores.  The developer program also does not restrict the types of apps distributed through its storefront. It supports a lot of over-the-top video, Rau noted, which should encourage developers to feel comfortable approaching them with any idea.