AT&T's de la Vega talks about open APIs, App Stores and Cloud Computing

On the Hot Seat with AT&T's Ralph de la Vega

At last month's Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Ralph de la Vega, president and CEO of AT&T Mobility and AT&T's consumer markets, issued a call to action for the industry to stop the operating system fragmentation and develop common APIs. The goal, de la Vega said, is to allow developers to make apps for multiple platforms so consumers will no longer be frustrated with apps that work on one device but not another. FierceWireless' editor-in-chief Sue Marek talked with de la Vega about the likelihood of the industry opening APIs, the role of Apple in this vision and what he thinks mobile developers can do to make their apps available to more consumers. 

FierceWireless: I was in the audience during your speech at Mobile World Congress when you issued that call to action for the industry to stop operating system fragmentation and develop common APIs. Have you received feedback about your comments at Mobile World Congress? 

De la Vega:  Yes, I have. I think we have accomplished what we set out to do, which was to stimulate the thinking around what makes an open mobile ecosystem work. I've received a lot of feedback about my comments and when I run into people, they mention it and some have expanded on it with even better analogies with why we need to move closer to what I proposed. I have gotten a lot of different viewpoints and that's what I intended to do. We said we didn't have all the answers but if you look back on history there are probably things that we could have done better. I think it achieved its purpose.

FierceWireless: One analyst said to me that if the operators are really serious about common APIs, they should make a list of standard platforms and stick to them.  Do you think that's realistic?

De la Vega: I view it differently. At the GSMA board meeting at the Mobile World Congress, I made a more detailed talk about this. Our message was that we should make some of the data available worldwide to make it simpler for developers to get the data they need to develop great applications. To the extent that we could be more unified with this information, it would make the developer process simpler.

We received some good feedback to this concept as well. I think you may see the GSMA or another association take up this flag and run with it. The concept is simple and straightforward. Let's take a more futuristic application--for example an application that would need to know presence of a subscriber, assuming the presence is provided on an opt-in basis. I could see that if we unified and made presence available to the developer community that would be an enhancement to what they have today and they would be able to develop applications with that information. The GSMA members could provide that information. There is a lot of discussion like that.

As opposed to a list of platforms, it's APIs and access to information. That is doable. There are no technological barriers. It's just a matter of getting the various partners together and getting them to agree to it.

FierceWireless: At Mobile World Congress, moderator Walt Mossberg of the Wall Street Journal, suggested that the market would resolve this issue of having so many fragmented operating systems similar to how it was resolved in the PC industry. Do you agree?

De la Vega: Walt Mossberg is a good friend and I respect him. But that doesn't mean I always agree with Walt. I hope we don't end up where the PC industry ended up with a majority OS that dominates and the rest are a small percentage. I don't think that is where the mobile environment is heading.  A year ago on the stage at Mobile World Congress we had people saying that we needed to reduce the number of operating systems and a year later we have two more than we did a year ago and it looks like that will continue. The people that say there is going to be consolidation, it's always the other guy that is going to consolidate.

I don't see where there has been any headway made there. There is an alternative. Let's be more consistent in opening APIs. Consider using Web 2.0 applications that are easily available to customers through a cloud computing environment that are easy to do from a developer point of view. If those APIs are there then you can see the day when an application would be available to more customers than they are today. I believe that the value of an application is directly proportional to the number of users that have access to it. That's what I'm trying to promote--more accessibility to the applications that users want. This is how I think we can accomplish it. I don't have all the answers but I think this approach is doable.

This is not just about the PC and the mobile handset. It's about the PC, the TV and the mobile handset. How do we make applications work across these three screens? The likelihood that we will have the same OS across all three screens is remote. If you think about the future and where we are going, I think it's important to make some headway in having some applications that are more universal across screens, across devices, across platforms. I'm sure that won't be the only way that people get access to applications but it's something to consider. We are working to accomplish that today because of the assets we have. Not all operators are thinking this way. But I think that's the way the world is going. The devices will converge and they will have access to a common API so consumers can get access to the applications they want.

FierceWireless: You talked about the Open Mobile Terminal Platform group and suggested that operators get involved in this.  Why this group?

De la Vega: I think that the Open Mobile Terminal Platform project is right in line with my thinking. They are trying to get web applications to work better across platforms. That is such a key point.  What that group is trying to do is make it easier for people to get access to the Web and the applications they want. The type of applications that I was speaking of, sit on the cloud, and anyone can get access to them on any device. For some applications, the simpler ones, that may be like a widget, that an entrepreneur can make, we need to figure it out how to make it easy to get to customers.  If you put it on a cloud, suddenly you have a good audience. That's what the world will eventually shift to that model. I think in the future there will be some that I propose that are this way and some that are the old-fashioned way, that are specific to an OS. I think the two will co-exist. The alternative that I propose will give developers, particularly the small developers, the opportunity to get applications in a scale that would have been unthinkable before.

FierceWireless: I wasn't familiar with that group until you mentioned it in your speech. When I looked into it, from a U.S. perspective, it's a very GSM-centric group. That would have to change.

De la Vega: The U.S. is not a very GSM-centric group but when Verizon goes to LTE that will change. They will be part of a bigger world community. Those things will be more prevalent in the U.S. and the tide will turn. I think that kind of thinking will get more pervasive in the U.S. when three of the four major carriers are GSM.

FierceWireless: You were criticized for your comments because one of your key partners is Apple and Apple has a very closed system. Some said your request for common APIs is a conflict with your relationship with Apple. How do you respond to this?

De la Vega: I don't think it's at conflict at all. I think it's complimentary. We have always believed at AT&T that we have to give customers choice. We give them choice in their devices, choice in their operating systems and choice in their applications. We have been the leaders in saying if you want your music from iTunes, you can get your music from iTunes. If you want your music from Napster, you can get it from Napster. If you want your OS to be BlackBerry, I'll give you BlackBerry. Apple is clearly a choice that will always be there. I think they are far ahead of anybody in terms of applications platforms and their App Store. What they just released with their iPhone 3.0 is well ahead of everyone in the industry. But that doesn't mean Apple should be the only choice. I think there will be a set of Web 2.0 applications that will play a nice role. But there will always be OS-specific applications like the Apple applications. It's fine for the two environments to co-exist. It doesn't have to be either/or. It can be either Apple for those sophisticated applications and for those who want more universal applications, can get them from a Web 2.0 application from the BONDI initiative from the OMTP. 

FierceWireless: What advice do you have for mobile developers? 

De la Vega: I think developers should continue to work with us and everyone in the industry. Everyone is focused clearly on how to make it easier for developers to do what they do best. I'm encouraged by the innovation and creativity I've seen in developers.  Let your voices be heard. We are one of the few companies that for a number of years have had a fast pitch approach so that entrepreneurs can demonstrate their applications. If we think they are good, we will promote them. We have DevCentral for developers and we are stepping up our efforts to find those cool applications and promote them. We did this last year with Cha Cha. They won our FastPitch competition and they have been a huge success. They have a great application. We were one of the first to spot them and make them our partner. The future of our business will be data-driven, rather than voice-driven. More data, because there are a whole lot of applications that make people's lives easier and make their businesses better. That's what developers do. I think that's our future.

FierceWireless: At Mobile World Congress we saw a proliferation of app stores. It's going crazy. I see that becoming very fragmented. What is your perspective on this?

De la Vega: It has become very fragmented and I think it makes it difficult for customers. Roger Entner met with me and he spoke about this. He had a good analogy.  He said that what I'm suggesting is there will be a shopping center for applications instead of one store. I want customers to go to one place to find an application rather than going from store to store. 

Today, I think the proliferation of applications and app stores are good but at some point we have to figure out how to make it easier. I think that is a very good analogy about how to think about this. This is a nascent part of the industry trying to figure out how to do it right. I think eventually we will see applications that will be in a shopping mall with cloud computing architecture.