The Wholesale Applications Community Sounds Like A Disaster In The Making

This morning, twenty four of the world’s largest telecom companies announced their plans to create the Wholesale Applications Community (WAC), a unified open platform that lets developers build an application once, and deploy it to work on any carrier, device, and OS. The roster of supporters include many of the biggest names in the business: AT&T, China Mobile, Orange, Verizon, Sprint, and many other operators around the globe, as well as device manufacturers LG, Samsung, and Sony Ericsson, all of whom are teaming up to take on Apple’s App Store dominance. In short, it sounds like a miracle for mobile developers.

If it sounds too good to be true, that’s because it probably is. Andy Rubin, Google VP of Engineering (and the man in charge of Android) has already shared his skepticism, saying, “There is always a dream that you could write [a program] once and [have it] run anywhere and history has proven that that dream has not been fully realised and I am sceptical that it ever will be“. To put it another way, this is a pipe dream from carriers looking to loosen Apple’s stranglehold over mobile applications and there’s very little chance that it’s going to work.

First, there are the obvious issues of fragmentation. Android itself is already having to deal with this problem, as various device manufacturers and carriers lag behind in rolling out the latest system updates, and developers are forced to tweak their applications to accommodate the differences in each device. And these are phones that are on the same platform. With the WAC — which is actually supposed to “unite a fragmented marketplace” — these fragmentation problems will probably be much, much worse.

Every time the WAC platform is updated, you’ll probably have to wait for your phone’s operating system maker to update their software. And you’ll have to wait for your carrier to deploy it in an OTA update (if they don’t push these over the air, then most people will probably never update and the market will get even more fragmented). Even if these updates are painless, developers will have to deal with dozens, or even hundreds, of different devices. They’ll have to take into account the myriad display resolutions, input options (does it have a keyboard or trackball?), and processing power available. Does the device support background applications? How about GPS? You get the picture.

And then there are the problems with the applications themselves. At this point the form that the WAC platform will take is nebulous, so it’s hard to make predictions. But based on my experience using other ‘unified’ platforms, like Adobe Air, I’m guessing that these applications are going to be sacrificing some horsepower for compatibility. And I’m also guessing rich games — which constitute most of App Store’s most popular applications — aren’t going to run very well.

Which leaves us with applications that are good for more basic tasks.  But really, there’s already a platform that works on every smartphone: the web. As HTML5 becomes more widely adopted, web applications are getting more like native applications every day. And by the time the WAC platform comes to fruition, which will probably take years, these web technologies (and the devices running them) are only going to be more advanced. Update: As a commenter below points out, the WAC’s platform will be initially based on JIL and BONDI, which are web-based widget specifications. So it at least realizes the web gives it its best shot at mass compatibility.

One last thing: while Apple likes to frequently point out just how many applications it has on the App Store, this number is pretty meaningless (which has been pointed out numerous times before). If each of these competing mobile platforms had 100 really good applications that covered the most popular use-cases, they’d probably be a lot better off than having a hundred thousand apps that work decently well. These mobile operators should stop worrying about the size of their App Stores and start offering incentives to developers to build high quality applications, and then make the user experience to download and pay for these apps as seamless as possible.