Verizon's Murphy talks V Cast Apps a year after launch

on the hotseat
with Todd Murphy, director of Verizon's consumer solutions group

murphy verizonRoughly a year after Verizon Wireless (NYSE:VZ) first introduced its V Cast Apps initiative, the storefront remains a relative anomaly in the increasingly crowded app store segment. Limited to fewer than a dozen Verizon smartphones and boasting just a fraction of the applications available in Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) App Store or Google's (NASDAQ:GOOG) Android Market, V Cast Apps instead focuses on quality over quantity as well as a simple, intuitive customer experience highlighted by direct carrier billing integration. V Cast Apps also stresses rigorous software testing--a far cry from the anything-goes Android Market, which only weeks ago purged more than 50 applications following a malware scare that reportedly impacted at least 50,000 Android users.

Verizon Wireless officially confirmed V Cast Apps' imminent launch at the CTIA Wireless 2010 conference; with the recent CTIA Wireless 2011 heralding the store's unofficial first anniversary, FierceDeveloper sat down with Todd Murphy, director of Verizon's consumer solutions group, to update the store's progress, assess its strengths and weaknesses, and determine its place in the app store ecosystem.  

FierceDeveloper: Let's start with the Verizon Developer Community program. Where does it stand? What are you hearing from developers?

Todd Murphy: We just did a recent survey, and we took a broad section of our developers--both heavy users of the VDC and medium and light users of the VDC. We got a fantastic response and got some validation of what developers are looking for and what we are in this whole thing. The reality is that we are distribution and marketing. That is something that I took away to re-establish with my own team--to say 'Hey guys, let's stay true to the offering that we have for our developers. Let's make sure that everything we do is related to distributing and marketing and merchandising to our customers quality applications, content and services.'

I'll be honest--we are crawling along at 11 devices. Seven RIM devices and four Android devices. As a developer, you've got to decide 'What are my distribution channels? How do I prioritize my resources?' Because in the world we live in, you can't do it all. The reality is that everything will change over the next few months, because of the positioning we're going to have for V Cast Apps on our flagship devices. When it comes to distribution, to have a storefront where it's easy to find quality applications front and center on our four flagship devices this year changes the whole game.

In addition to the storefront, we've also got the network API initiative, which is all about exposing our network to developers. We're in a unique position here--this is where we are a platform provider. We provide the network, and we want to expose it to developers, and we will continue to do that.

We've also got our third-party relationships, which is another core pillar of what we work on for the ecosystem. If it's not Verizon's secret sauce or Verizon's stuff, then let's go out and find valuable third-party tools that make development easier for our ecosystem--for example, the Ground Truth deal we did, where we provide in-app analytics tools, plus demographics. We've seen some great uptake from developers who want to closely track usage and get an understanding of their customers, our customers or the customers we share.

FierceDeveloper: How has the introduction of the iPhone changed what you do? Apple's a very different company from Google, of course. Do you have any input into the App Store, or any assistance for developer partners who want to build apps for iOS? It seems like that ecosystem is so closed.

Murphy: I'll be honest--it is a closed ecosystem. We focus on RIM (NASDAQ:RIMM) and Android. We're not focused on Apple. We're not focused on iOS.

FierceDeveloper: It's been roughly a year since V Cast Apps first launched. What are you happy with about the store, and what areas do you feel still need a lot of work?

Murphy: It took us a long time to get to [the] point where I can say I'm pleased with the catalog and its evolution. In other words, we've got about 1,000 applications on average on an Android device and about 1,400 applications on RIM. Those numbers will grow, but we have no aspirations to grow anywhere near 100,000 or 200,000 or 300,000. That's not the kind of storefront we want to get in front of our customers.

We continue to be very pleased with the purchasing experience, which is core to our value proposition--and unique, as well. That's something we will continue to leverage as we build out different capabilities of the storefront.

To acknowledge what we're not so happy about, distribution is not yet at critical mass. But the train's already left the station. These devices are going to get shipped, and our store is going to be there.

Take a look at how we've done the integration on [Sony Ericsson's] Xperia Play. It's a fantastic example of the kinds of things we can do. The Xperia Play has been blogged about to no end--it's a great story. We knew that going in: When I first saw the hardware, I thought 'Wow, this thing is sweet.' So we went to extra lengths to do the right integration of our store on the device. It is a gaming-centric device, so some people argue that it's a niche device. Frankly, I don't think so. Gaming has blockbuster stamina in our world. I think it's going to be a very interesting play, and we did the best integration of our storefront to the device and the user experience, where whenever you flip open the device, it goes to all the games you have loaded and recommends other high-quality games that are using the D-pad and using the graphics processor, and everything deep-links into our store. It's a seamless shopping experience for the customer.

Along with that device comes what we internally call "large apps." On the Froyo OS, we can accept up to a 500MB file, and on Gingerbread OS, we can accept up to a 1GB file. We've engineered this thing so it's seamless, and you're going to get the whole file from start to finish when you buy the application. You'll know how big it is, and you'll be able to garner how long it's going to take you to download it. It's much more upfront to the customer, and a much better shopping experience.

FierceDeveloper: Are we going to see other V Cast Apps' experiences optimized for particular devices? Something like Motorola's Droid Pro, which is clearly catering to an enterprise demographic, would seem like a natural fit.

Murphy: Moving forward, we're going to do it where it makes sense. There's a flipside that I'm sensitive about, and that is [why] we really think it's important to have a consistent merchandising layer at the very top level. One of the primary reasons that we have an app store is because even across operating systems, we can deploy a consistent merchandising experience. The reality is that the more custom work we do on top of that, the more we fragment the shopping experience. Having said that, when we have a device like an Xperia Play, and we really want to showcase high-quality games that leverage the network, leverage the device and leverage a seamless shopping and purchase experience, we'll do that. So yes, we'll do more.

FierceDeveloper: Are the applications that are popular on V Cast Apps the same that are popular on Android Market or BlackBerry App World? Are you seeing a different segment of users that are accessing the store?

Murphy: The popular apps are the popular apps, and those are the ones we're sourcing for our catalog. The popular apps amongst hundreds of thousands are harder to find--the same popular apps among thousands are easier to find.

Having said that, it doesn't mean that we don't see the store as a means for us to monitor what's popular and get the right stuff in front of the customer. We highly value a direct relationship with our developers so that we can monitor the things that are successful and popular, and that our customers like. That was the realization we came to when we started to see apps proliferate on smartphones: Verizon is no longer in a position to efficiently decide what's innovative. Let's let those guys decide what's innovative, and then get those things in front of customers. It's that basic.

FierceDeveloper: Amazon Appstore for Android just launched. Given some of what Amazon is promising in terms of product recommendations and their skill at merchandising, what kind of threat does the store pose?

Murphy: I admire Amazon's ability to merchandise. Do they pose a threat? I don't think so. I think our storefronts will be very different, just like [Android] Market is different from both of us. They're different shopping experiences. We are really going after quality--we have a process that filters for quality.

Amazon has a different business objective--a different model. They merchandise and retail and sell things, and apps are selling, so they need to sell apps. In the process of selling apps, hopefully they'll sell video, or DVDs, or something like that. Google needs eyeballs, so they've built a store that gets eyeballs. We're building a store that gets quality stuff in front of the customers that we have a relationship with.

FierceDeveloper: What makes a quality app? What stands out?

Murphy: A couple of things. We do have the advantage of being around since Day One of apps. We've been doing this for a long time, and some of the good stuff is still the good stuff, even from Get It Now translating to smartphones. There's a whole new world that we live in, but the relationships we've established over the last nine years are valuable, and we work with those guys to put great stuff out there for our customers. We want to give customers what they like--what's indicated to be popular. We're watching what's happening on the store and putting stuff out there that we know is being consumed.

Besides just quality, our store is safe. It does take longer for an app to get published in our store, but that's intentional. We look for apps that follow reasonable guidelines, that are legally okay, and then we test them pretty rigorously compared to our competitors. We test applications to make sure they're safe for our phones and for our customers. The malware that's coming out is stealing data and crashing phones, and that's not good for anybody in our ecosystem. We're sensitive to that because we have the customer relationship.

FierceDeveloper: Is the recent malware scare going to have a long-term impact on Google's thinking? Are they ever going to come around to the realization that Android Market's level of openness can't work in this industry?

Murphy: My opinion is no--that's not the business that they're in. They'll leave that up to the Lookout Securitys of the world. Along with openness comes viruses--that's their attitude. That's not the approach we're taking, obviously.

FierceDeveloper: We've been focusing largely on Android, so let's talk about the RIM store you have. When I talk to developers, there doesn't appear to be a lot of interest in creating apps for BlackBerry. Is that something you're seeing, or is developer interest and consumer interest still fairly healthy?

Murphy: We value our relationship with RIM, and it's to our advantage to understand what they're doing with their OS, with their hardware and with everything. There are app-friendly platforms and not-app-friendly platforms. Android and Apple have app-friendly platforms. RIM does not right now, but RIM knows that. And while I can't get into specifics, I'm excited about where they want to take things. Don't count RIM out, but they have some work to do. (Editor's Note: Roughly 24 hours after this interview, RIM announced its forthcoming BlackBerry PlayBook tablet will run Android applications.)

FierceDeveloper: What do you feel RIM needs to do to recharge developer interest? Is it as simple as creating a more developer-friendly platform?

Murphy: Yeah, and they're in the process of doing that. They've recognized what's not so friendly about where their OS is today, and where it came from, so they're addressing that. Beyond that, they have a very interesting proposition from a hardware standpoint. RIM makes great hardware. With the advent of the PlayBook--and if they do it right--because of where they sit in the industry today, they'll do some really cool stuff that the industry really needs.

FierceDeveloper: What's next for the VDC, and what's next for V Cast Apps?

Murphy: We have an exciting year ahead. The train's left the station and we've turned the corner. We need to establish good distribution. That will happen. Merchandising and the customer experience are our primary focus right now. Look for things to come in terms of what the user interface looks like for the store, and towards the middle and throughout the rest of the year, we're going to start rolling out the features and functions that, when you look at the store right now, it's glaringly obvious they're not there. They need to be there, and they will be there this year.

Beyond that, it's about positioning the content and services that we have. We have a very good focus on what we can offer in terms of distribution and merchandising, and we're staying real to that. A store does not have to have a thousand bells and whistles--it has to do some very fundamental things very well to help customers find good apps. We've got all those things accounted for in our roadmap for this year.