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Mobile World Congress 2010: GSMA Attempts To Counter Apple With Device And App Initiatives

Barcelona—Yesterday's article from Mobile World Congress (MWC) discussed the consolidation of mobile broadband and voice networks into the Long Term Evolution (LTE) 4G standard that is being embraced in the U.S., Korea, and China as vigorously as it has been in the rest of the world.

Not content to stop at network spectrum and transport consolidation, which has the potential to provide a level playing field for all mobile handset manufacturers and service providers, the host GSM Association announced additional initiatives to address the concerns surrounding the continuing success of biggest no-show at MWC: Apple, Inc.

When Apple announced its initial iPhone at Macworld San Francisco is January 2006, during the same week as the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, other handset manufacturers scrambled to address concerns over that year's crop of handsets being obsolete upon arrival. The 2010 unveiling of the Apple iPad has pushed a similar wave of responses throughout both the handset and service provider segments of the mobile industry—especially those providers who don't yet have carrier agreements with Apple.

Partly to address these concerns, and partly to shift the balance of power back from consumers being locked into particular handsets to a legacy model of service provider lock (where specific phones are exclusively available on one service provider per geographic region), GSMA announced three initiatives: an upgraded Embedded Mobile initiative, OneAPI, and a Wholesale Applications Community.

Embedded Mobile
The Embedded Mobile initiative, like its name, is a program geared toward adding mobile broadband connectivity to automotive, consumer electronics, healthcare, and utilities devices. With the advent of LTE 4G networks over the next year that will address the needs of heavy broadband users—including smartphones and consumer portable streaming devices—there will also be a significant legacy 3G GSM data network in place that lower-bandwidth healthcare and utilities devices can take advantage of.

GSMA used MWC to announce a modular approach—both in hardware as well as in key vertical markets—to the use of embedded broadband. GSMA made a set of industry guidelines available Monday "to reduce design complexity and fragmentation, to in turn deliver cost-effective modules for the embedded mobile market." Cognizant of the fact that consumer devices are not only judged on how the device looks and functions but also on the merits of its end-to-end service, GSMA is also pushing for innovations across multiple consumer devices that have become hallmarks of the Amazon's Kindle and other e-reader devices that rely on mobile broadband to receive data anywhere on their overlay network.

GSMA also announced a partnership with a healthcare alliance to push mobile broadband use deep into a group of users—including doctors and emergency personnel—as part of the Embedded Mobile initiative.

"We are partnering with the Continua Health Alliance," a GSMA spokesperson said, "to promote innovation and drive the use of embedded mobile solutions in healthcare." Continua is a non-profit, open industry organization of healthcare and technology companies, some of which will be represented at the upcoming HIMSS 2010 conference in Atlanta, Georgia, in early March.

The global adoption of LTE, coupled with data roaming agreements hammered out within the EU last year at the insistence of Viviane Reding, now the European Commissioner for Information Society and Media, means that two of the key requirements for a successful mobile broadband embedded strategy are in place.

What is still lacking from the Embedded Mobile initiative, besides the ability to provide very high bandwidth throughput on 4G, is the widespread adoption of IPv6 device-unique IP addresses rather than today's DHCP-sharing IPv4 IP addresses. To add this last key portion of the Embedded Mobile initiative will require the cooperation of the router and ICT product manufacturers, to allow demand—gauged by GSMA as a potential of 50 billion connected devices by 2025—to meet network routing capabilities.OneAPI
A second initiative, dubbed the OneAPI, is being piloted in Canada with three key Canadian mobile service providers: Bell Mobility, Rogers Communications and TELUS.

An API, or application programming interface, is often thought of as a set of "hooks" into an existing software program that can be used by third-party developers to integrate additional functions without actually having access to the software program's code. This is a key part of cloud-based encoding provided by companies in the streaming space, such as Encoding.com or HD Cloud. In the mobile phone industry, though, the software programs that are used to run a mobile network are often propriety and customized for a specific service provider.

"A common set of APIs will benefit the entire mobile industry," said Michael O’Hara, GSMA's Chief Marketing Officer, "by making it much more attractive for developers to create innovative applications and services. Based on information provided by operators about their networks, our OneAPI initiative will help create a larger addressable market, both enhancing the customer experience and creating new revenue opportunities for mobile operators and developers alike."

Ibrahim Gedeon, CTO at TELUS, whom I'd spoken to at the SUPERCOMM show in October, sees the benefits of access to billing and broadband as fitting nicely into the Embedded Mobile Initiative.

"The OneAPI pilot has demonstrated the value to partners of our ability to abstract our billing and network technology capabilities," Gedeon stated in a GSMA press release, "including full support for our recently launched national HSPA+ high-speed network."

Exposing mobile network capabilities such as payment, messaging and location, in much the same way that Apple does with its iPhone software development kit (SDK), it should be possible for developers to create location-aware applications, alert customers to geographically pertinent offers and then bill the customers for them.

Yet the concept of billing for third-party services on the mobile phone bill, while strong in Europe and somewhat strong in Canada, has never really taken off in the United States, in part due to the fragmentation of numerous mobile service providers.

Beyond the SDK and the use of mobile broadband in consumer electronics and other embedded devices, the need for a common platform to sell applications has been brought to the fore by Apple's announcement that its upcoming iPad does not have Flash and will rely on the same App Store e-commerce solution that the iPhone uses.

To that end, 24 international mobile service providers—including AT&T, China Mobile, Deutsche Telekom (DT), and NTT Docomo—announced a consolidated effort to "unite a fragmented marketplace" of application sales, with the backing of the GSMA.

Wholesale Applications Community
While this standardization, known as the Wholesale Applications Community has an admirable goal, creating a single application outlet for the carriers' 3 billion plus customers, the implementation may be especially tricky, given the mobile platform differences, including various Flash and Java implementations.In fact, while this is a beneficial move for the carriers, the mobile handset providers don't seem all that interested in joining forces.

Samsung, for instance, announced the expansion of its app store, which was launched in three European countries in 2009, to more than 50 countries in 2010. Yet the applications are geared towards mobile handsets made by the Korean consumer electronics giant, which is also true of the application stores from Apple and Research in Motion (RIM), for their respective iPhone and Blackberry mobile devices.

Ericsson, another handset provider, also jumped into the app store fray, launching its eStore, which it says is already populated by 30,000 applications.

Still, the GSMA is undeterred about the issues the Wholesale Applications Community may face across multiple handsets, service providers and geographic restrictions.

The GSMA's CEO remains upbeat, perhaps thinking this new app store will shift the balance of power back to the mobile service providers.

"They will build a new, open ecosystem to spur the creation of applications that can be used regardless of device, operating system or operator," said Rob Conway CEO of GSMA. "This is tremendously exciting news for our industry and will serve as a catalyst to develop a range of innovative cross-device, cross-operator applications."

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