Cellcos get WAC on OS fragmentation

Another year, another Mobile World Congress, and if we learned anything this year, it's this: everyone is concerned about the fragmentation of device platforms.

Except for the actual platform developers, of course. A number of them made it quite clear that whatever you think about platform proliferation, they're not going anywhere.

Take RIM chief Mike Lazaradis, who spent his opening keynote praising the superiority of BlackBerry's "super apps" - i.e. customized premium apps that integrate more deeply into your services.

Dr Ho Soo Lee, EVP of Samsung's Media Solution Centre, topped that by describing Samsung's new Bada platform as enabling the "democratization" of smartphones, then argued that Bada wouldn't contribute to market fragmention because it would sell like hotcakes.

Then we had Nokia and Intel combining their respective Maemo and Moblin platforms into MeeGo, which technically counts as consolidation of a sort but still won't replace Nokia-owned market leader Symbian, which released it first open-source version the same day. Meanwhile, Google's Android made the scene with a slew of new handset releases, while Microsoft released Windows Phone 7. Apple wasn't there, but as often as the iPhone got namedropped during the keynotes, the panels and pretty much everywhere else in Barcelona, it didn't need to be.

So, no - none of these platforms are going to fall by the wayside or crumble in defeat for a long time. Which really shouldn't be news to anyone - platform fragmentation has been a problem since the early 00s in one form or another. That's why the Open Mobile Alliance was created in 2002. What's changed is that the focus of mobile content has expanded from MMS and browser-based content to apps and widgets that are currently locked to smartphone OSs.

Otherwise, the dilemma remains essentially the same - how to help apps developers bridge those platforms without hindering the competition that those platforms arguably need to stay innovative.

Which is why the GSM Association has stepped in with initiatives designed to deal with the fragmentation problem by empowering cellcos, including the OneAPI initiative that unifies network-based APIs for things like messaging, billing and location-based services, and the recently announced Wholesale Apps Community (WAC). This features 24 operators and several handset makers (LG, Samsung and Sony Ericsson) at launch, aiming to combine the efforts of JIL and OMTP to create a single community for widget developers.

WAC is banking on its combined 3 billion+ subscriber base (excluding future operator members that are reportedly expected to sign on soon) to give it the clout and the scale to convince the likes of Google to deal cellcos into their future apps development roadmaps rather than work against them, according to Rethink Research's Caroline Gabriel.

If nothing else, WAC could be a boon for one other mobile platform group: the LiMo Foundation, a.k.a. the Linux-based open-source platform not controlled by Google that's also cellco-friendly. LiMo's operator membership includes JIL and WAC co-founders Vodafone, Verizon Wireless and Softbank, as well as NTT DoCoMo, SK Telecom, Telefica Orange and Telecom Italia (all members of WAC), and LiMo already supports standards like BONDI that WAC will adopt. Unsurprisingly, LiMo has endorsed WAC already.

Finding common ground

The main potential snag: operators aren't exactly known for cooperating well with the competition, especially on things they hope to use as market differentiators. Some might point to alliances such as Bridge Alliance and Conexus Mobile Alliance as successful examples, but the members of those alliances don't compete in each other's markets. WAC includes rival cellcos within Japan, Korea, China and the US, among other markets.

Even some operators are skeptical - Telstra CTO Dr Hugh Bradlow said fighting OS fragmentation was a job for handset makers, not networks.

That said, the other big story from MWC was Google chief Eric Schmidt getting grief from the audience during the Q&A following his keynote speech. Perhaps a common wariness over Google's ultimate mobile designs could unite cellcos closer than any GSMA initiative.