Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Wholesale Applications Community (WAC)

Ok. It's time I blog a bit on this:

What it is?

WAC is essentially a bunch of telcos banding together to make "their own" ecosystem with appstores, trusted certificates etc for applications based on javascript with access to various phone and network assets meaning that these javascript apps can query the phone about where it is, set up phone calls etc. The javascript part of WAC will be adopted from W3C's Bondi initiative, the rest will come from somewhere else and I'm not at all certain of the details about how this will come about. Perhaps someone knows, but for the sake of the argument I'll assume that this will be sorted out in some reasonable manner.

Why WAC may be a good idea?

It's the Web, stupid.

In short, because it's the web: This will let the web get a first-class-citizen position on the handsets: Just like web applications on the web today in principle can do just about anything a native app can, wac will enable web apps to do a lot of things that have up to now been firmly in the bailiwick of native applications; like calling, contact list management, taking pictures, sending and receiving messages etc. All of this is good. It means that the tentacles of the clouded web will be able to infiltrate the handset as if it was just another web connected device, which it will now be.

It will annoy Steve Jobs.

Now in the spirit of full disclosure, I'm an admirer of Steve Jobs but there are many things Apple does that annoys me. One of those things is the way in which they lock developers into a very narrow straightjacket of terms, conditions and development environments in which they must work. It's not allowed to write code for the iPhone in anything except C++, Objective C and C, basically. That's .... barbaric. However, it does make sense for Apple since it greatly reduces the degrees of freedom that they have to manage in order to maintain a polished and sanitized environment for the iPhone. There is only one little chink in Apples armor, and that is ... the web. The Safari browser runs javascript. Javascript is the only unsanitized language allowed on the iphone. It is excactly this weakness WAC (or more precisely Bondi) attacks. This means that at some point Apple will be faced with a choice: Either they neuter their Javascript engine by excluding the Bondi extensions (and that will be hard when Bondi is an official part of W3Cs recommendations for how Javascript engines should behave), or they allow Bondi in on their phones thereby opening them up for an entirely new ecosystem of unsanitized apps that can tickle all the parts of the iphone that can presently only be accessed by developers that has signed Apples rules and regulations for appropriate behavior. I'm sure that if Steve is still alive if or when Bondi becomes a W3C standard, there will be one or more Steve jobs moments where he explains whatever path Apple chooses.

Now, this may sound as if Wac is a bad thing for Apple, but in reality it isn't. Apple has played its cards extremely well. When the iPhone came out it was at least two years ahead of all competitors, and it hasn't been standing still since. This ment that Apple basically had the iPhone segment of the market all to themselves, and any terms whatsoever that they dictated had to be acceptable because there were very few alternatives. Basically Apple had created themselves a temporary monopoly by virtue of being exceptionally innovative, so naturally they exploited this monopoly by extracting monopoly profits, and their terms and conditions are just a means to an end for this objective. Now if you look under the hood of the iPhone there is actually not that much that is very special there, this if anything makes the fact that it is so innovative more impressive btw. : Under the hood there is the Mach message passing kernel. On top of that runs a BSD based Unix directly derived from the desktop OSX which in turn is a direct derivative of NeXT's operating system, with some influence from the FreeBSD project. The window system is based on OpenGL on top of which a modern-looking version of NeXTs old GUI code is run. The strength of the innovation is not so much in the basic technologies used, most of them are actually more than ten years old, but in the flawless execution when putting all of this on a handheld platform while keeping power consumption down and adding perhaps the best industrial design on the planet to the physical design. However, from the list above it should be obvious that there is very little of the technology in the iPhone that requires a closed environment to thrive. In fact, all of the software components (including the GUI) has open source equivalents that are either identical or just a hair worse than their Apple counterparts. This means that Apple has a looong way it can slide in the direction of openness without breaking any fundamentals of the iPhone's success. It will perhaps mean that they will cash a bit less monopoly profits, but that is only to be expected: After all, nobody expect Apple to remain alone at the head of the field forever. So, my conclusion is that Apple has a lot of defensive depth: They can allow Bondi to access the phones, they can allow interpreted languages on the iPhone and they can do it without breaking their success, but even more important: They can open up when they choose on terms of their choosing, and they can do this because they chose their starting position very intelligently. My hat off for Mr. Jobs :-)

It will enable first-class communications clients on the web

I'm not sure if the telcos have clued into this, but WAC will actually weaken their monopolies: After all, javascript is already present in all kinds of browsers on the desktop; what is there to stop them from implementing the Bondi APIs, hooking those up to some backend (e.g. voip) and voila: Universal communication clients that are wholly independent of telco infrastructure. Or more precisely, communication clients that can opportunistically choose what type of infrastructure they wish to use, and that process of selection will be mediated through the web, not through the signalling systems of the Telcos. This is good news for customers and web developers, and for developers of modern telephony, but not necessarily so good for the old monopoly-based telcos ;)

If it takes of at all is not dependent on telco support in the long run :-)

This may sound a bit weird since it is the telcos that are pushing WAC implementation, but if you look at my first point "It's the Web stupid", it becomes obvious: Wac will let the web infiltrate the handsets. This will of course happen quicker if the telcos are onboard and actively helping, but once it is done the telcos are not that important. The appstore thingy may or may not become a success, but imho that is of little importance in the long run. In fact, it may well be that telcos will ultimately meet stiffer competition from web-based telephony operators made possible by prevalence of the Bondi APIs

Why WAC may be a bad idea?

It's the stupid telcos!

Buy and large the Telcos don't grok the Internet. This time it may be different, but it's always been that way and I'm not holding my breath this time. The telcos are banding together to promote their own interests, which tend to be: Their own (super) profits, (total) control over ("their") networks and lately also fierce competition with other telcos (meaning that they will fight by any means available to maintain market share, a lost customer is lost revenue and there is a finite supply of customers). I believe this creates an unstable situation for any cooperation: No software developer in their right mind would want to put their future in the hands of the telcos.

If the telcos are to create some common infrastructure for say a marketplace for WAC applications, they would have to both be attractive to developers, compete with all other marketplaces in the world, but at the same time they will have strong incentives against destroying their own profits by say, allowing universal communication applications to develop.

Also they will have incentives to defect from the cooperation. Consider this scenario: Some handset manufacturer sees the WAC marketplace as a threat, so their defensive move is to allow Bondi-based applications into their appstore, but they won't allow applications from the telcos WAC-store to be installed in their handsets (for security reason, naturally). Developers will simply say "ok, we'll just submit the app one more place, no big hassle". Now the handset manufacturer can approach the operators and say: "You know, this whole WAC thing is bad for security, so if you defect from the WAC consortium we'll offer you our latest and greatest handset ahead of your main competitor, and your customer's won't be harmed by this since all the best WAC applications are available from our appstore anyway, what do you say? If you say no I'll naturally talk to your competitor to hear what they say, and by the way the xPhone-8 will be a really great product, to bad if your customers have to wait eight months before they can get some".


In short, I believe that the telcos' vision of what WAC will mean for them is mostly mistaken. It will in all likelyhood not become a viable alternative to the appstores that is already established. Bondi enabled web-applications both on and off handsets will be to the benefit to both developers and end-users.

The only way in which telcos can actually gain from WAC is to grow a clue, and learn a lot, and to do so really fast when reactions from real developers and real users on their perceptions on what WAC means starts to come in. My guesses on what they should learn is:
  1. The Internet is here to stay. Deal with it.
  2. Helping people to leverage their relationships is at the core of the telcos' business. More so than making sure electromagnetic signals flows through various media (fiber, air, copper).
  3. Since value is created by connecting people to people, and people to services, making this process easier for everyone will enhance value creation.
  4. Monopolies (natural or artificial) don't last forever, and are not necessarily part of the core business. By all means use monopoly power when you can get , but realize that greed isn't always conducive for your long term health.
... but I'm not holding my breath on this one either :-)