Application stores are the theme of the year, and the operators are determined not to let the vendors take all the glory in terms of branding and revenue control. T-Mobile led the way in announcing its own plans for cross-platform stores; China Mobile and China Unicom are determined to create their own, tightly branded virtual shops; Orange and Verizon are the latest to get in on the act.
Orange France announced last year that it would create a store that would unify content for the mobile and TV platforms, with its rapidly expanding mobile TV service acting as a bridge between the two worlds. Now it has confirmed plans for its App Shop (original naming is not a feature of this trend), and also for a mobile TV service running on the iPhone.
Having been stripped of its iPhone exclusivity by French courts, Orange aims to dominate sales of the Apple handset on its own merits, providing services that are not supported by SFR and Bouygues Telecom, both of which plan to sell the iPhone from this month.
The Orange mobile TV service, the first offered on an iPhone, will consist of 64 channels, about 20 of them free for subscribers who have iPhone plans of at least â‚¬42 a month. To get all the channels, users need to pay an â‚¬9 a month.
The TV application was developed by Orange itself, and will be available in the Apple App Store tomorrow - though it is unclear whether it will also be available in Apple's App Store and in Orange's own App Shop, when that opens later this year (only in France).
Dangers of fragmentation
This highlights one of the key issues of the mobile software stores - how far they could fragment as operators and hardware or software vendors try to differentiate their offerings and provide original content. Too much fragmentation will make life difficult for developers and end users alike.
Like T-Mobile, Orange will support applications for all the smartphones and operating systems in its portfolio, as well as Java phones, and will add app fees to subscribers' phone bills. The inclusion of Java is important, opening the way to expand into mid range webphones, especially in emerging markets, and go beyond the OS wars.
Some operators are hoping to integrate their stores with those of key vendors, at least in user interface terms, though this could lead to a complicated revenue share model. Orange is reported to be discussing such integration with Nokia and RIM.
Verizon joins in
Meanwhile, last week's CTIA Wireless show saw Verizon opening its Mobile Web Games and Apps Store, a portal for the tools and titles that the operator already offers on many handsets. It will be available to customers with Get It Now-capable phones with either WAP or HTML.
The store is not as sophisticated as many operator shop fronts - just an update of the old WAP site - but is likely to be the first step towards a fully blown offering, likely to be discussed at Verizon's developers' conference this summer.
Verizon will really enter the apps business when its open developer initiative, mainly geared to its new 700MHz spectrum, gathers pace, since its current system runs on the Qualcomm Brew content system. 'Brew is a closed ecosystem and each deal is hand cut,' explained Ryan Hughes, VP of business development, in a CTIA interview. 'There's an inclination to race to be open, but we need to make sure we don't compromise the experience.'