Fighting OS fragmentation with widgets is WAC

One of the hot topics at this year's Mobile World Congress was apps. The good news: consumers want them and will even pay money for them. The bad news: they're locked into mobile OS platforms that are fragmenting the market for developers - a situation that the mobile industry had been laboring to avoid via organizations like the Open Mobile Alliance.

The day before the congress opened, the GSM Association announced a solution to the problem: the Wholesale Application Community (WAC), a group of 24 cellcos (including Bharti Airtel, China Mobile, China Unicom, KT, NTT DoCoMo, Softbank Mobile, SingTel, SK Telecom and Vodafone) and device makers LG Electronics, Samsung and Sony Ericsson. WAC vowed to tackle the fragmentation problem, starting with widgets based on specs the developed by JIL (Joint Innovation Lab) and OMTP (via its BONDI standard), with the intention of combining those widget framework standards into a common spec. But as the ink was still wet on the WAC agreement, details were sparse on how this would actually be achieved.

Last month, the GSMA and WAC offered some more details on their plan ... but not much more. They delivered a timetable - the official WAC company will be established and its board elected in July; the SDK, materials and documents will be made available for developers in September; its first developer event will be staged in November; and WAC will officially open for business at the next Mobile World Congress in February 2011.

WAC also confirmed the JIL/BONDI widget consolidation plan, as well as plans to incorporate the GSMA's OneAPI initiative into the framework, and a revenue sharing business model for everyone in the value chain - from the developer to the retailer and the cellco - and WAC itself, although WAC will operate strictly on a non-profit basis.

What all that adds up to is mobile widgets and web apps enriched with network APIs. Or, as WAC interim chief and OMTP CEO Tim Raby put it:  "The ubiquity of the Web is a core starting point to the write/submit once, deploy/sell everywhere scenario that developers have been asking for a long time."

Widgets vs. native apps

Only it's not.

Not exactly. Raby's right to say the web is a key element of making mobile apps work cross-platform. He's essentially talking about cloud-based services. And while widgets and web apps generally have a patchy track record in terms of performance compared to native apps (depending on what the app does - for example, RSS reader widgets run well in the cloud, navigation maps less so), arming them with network APIs could help, along with things like faster connection speeds and 1-GHz processors.

But as a "write/submit once, deploy/sell everywhere" fragmentation killer, it doesn't accomplish that much. Only one OS platform player - RIM - had pledged support for WAC at press time, and regardless of how many follow suit, none are going to give up their app store strategies, not even as mobile content migrates to the cloud. Apple most certainly won't - its legendary restrictions over apps development are partly the result of Steve Jobs' belief that a standards-based but tightly controlled OS ecosystem is crucial to surviving in a cloud-based content future.

And however long that future takes to arrive, the market for native apps and the app stores that sell them will thrive in the meantime. WAC's Raby admits as much, saying during the press briefing that widgets and apps storefronts will co-exist in the same way that web games co-exist with console games.

None of this to say WAC is a bad idea. If nothing else, it will make billions of feature phones eligible for the apps craze, which developers will likely appreciate in terms of access, scale and approval processes (as long as WAC is sensible about it, and provided Nokia, Motorola and HTC support it). But the mobile OS landscape will remain as fragmented as ever.