Cross-Platform Developer Tools 2012

We are proud to announce the launch of Cross-Platform Tools 2012 – the free, industry-first report on cross-platform developer tools. You can download a free copy here. Cross-platform tools (CPTs) allow developers to create applications for multiple platforms with a small incremental cost. Their impact is both tactical in allowing developers to target more platforms, but also strategic in having the potential to disrupt the Apple/Google duopoly in mobile ecosystems.

VisionMobile - Cross-Platform Tools 2012

Our report is based on a 6-month project, comprising a large-scale online developer survey (nearly 2,500 respondents) combined with meticulous research, vendor interviews and analysis of this complex market of over 100 tools vendors. This report would not have been possible without the support of Marmalade, RunRev, Verizon Developer Communities, Xamarin and the many other companies behind this multi-sponsored project.

Cross-platform tools (CPTs) solve real challenges today; they allow developers to create applications for multiple platforms – usually mobile, but increasingly tablets or TV screens – from almost the same codebase or from within the same design tool. CPTs reduce the cost of platform fragmentation and allow developers to target new platforms at a small incremental cost. More importantly, cross-platform tools allow software companies targeting multiple platforms to reuse developer skills, share codebases, synchronise releases and reduce support costs.

Early leaders in the cross-platform tools space

Our survey revealed that PhoneGap and Sencha lead in terms of mindshare, as they are currently used by 32% and 30% of cross-platform developers, irrespective of their primary tools. Completing the top-5 ranking of our Mindshare Index are Xamarin’s MonoTouch / Mono for Android, Appcelerator and Adobe (Flex). The second half of the top-10 CPTs in terms of current use are Unity, Corona, AppMobi, RunRev and MoSync.


PhoneGap (23%), Xamarin Mono (22%) and Unity (22%) are the tools most developers plan to adopt, irrespective of their primary tool. This market is in constant flux, with developers experimenting and trying out new tools – for example PhoneGap is a stepping stone to cross-platform development as it leads Mindshare, IntentShare, but also comes third in the tools being abandoned. The most widely used CPT accounts for just half of the Mindshare seen in the iOS and Android platforms in our Developer Economics 2011 report.

Cross-platform tools challenge the Apple/Google duopoly

The real impact of cross-platform tools is strategic. Just as the Apple/Google duopoly began to look impenetrable in 2011, a major disruption is flattening the playing field for competitors like Microsoft’s WP7, RIM’s BlackBerry OS and Samsung’s Bada: cross-platform tools are letting developers target multiple platforms with low incremental costs and high levels of code reuse.

2012 marks an inflexion point in the war of mobile ecosystems where the network effects built by Apple and Google are being challenged by an unsuspected new entrant. Cross-platform tools (CPTs) make it easier for example for an iPhone developer to reach Android and Windows Phone 7 users. CPTs dilute network effects by allowing other ecosystems to compete not just in terms of the number of apps listed, but also the availability of top apps, the time-to- market (an app rarely appears at the same time across all platform app stores) and the overall app quality.

Moreover, cross-platform tools reduce barriers to entry and democratise app development, by allowing developers from any language (HTML, Java, C++), any background (hobbyist, pros, agencies, corporates) and any skill level (visual designer to hard-core developer) to build mobile apps. The dozens of CPTs available cater to every developer segment, from creative designers to C++ gurus to hobbyist website enthusiasts to Fortune-500 CIOs. The result could be termed a “democratisation” of software development (in the words of Unity’s Dan Adams), in that mobile platforms may be opened up to all types of developers.

Mergers, financings and the survival of the strongest

We have identified over 100 cross-platform developer tools, in a market that’s booming with new players in 2011. Cross-platform tools have passed the “early adopter” phase, and are now moving into mainstream. For example vendor Sencha counts 1.6 million SDK downloads, Corona apps have reportedly been downloaded 35 million times in 2011, Unity reports 200,000 developers active each month, while Appcelerator boasts 35,000 apps published using the tool and deployed on 40 million devices.

Since 2011, cross-platform tool vendors have raised major VC funding, have been acquired, or achieved major releases. In the CPT space we have tracked 10 acquisitions, and over US$ 200 million in funding rounds. This is a market that takes cash to survive: CPT vendors are subsidizing their entry to market with free products, based on ample VC funding. For example OpenPlug ceased operations as it failed to find a monetisation model, with its key challenge being the conversion of freemium users into paying customers for its support and professional services. CPT vendors without a compelling free product will be washed out by the competition.

Cross-platform tools are taking HTML further than browsers can

The purpose of HTML5 has been to extend the capabilities of web apps (those developed using HTML and JavaScript) to more closely match the capabilities of native apps. Despite performance disadvantages and fragmentation across different browser versions, HTML5 has emerged as the most widely supported authoring technology for cross-platform apps. Cross-platform tools are taking HTML further than web browsers can, by allowing web developers to create native smartphone apps. In other words, CPTs are taking HTML5 much further by unifying the authoring side- rather than the runtime side – of the app across platforms.

Moreover, CPTs are paving the way for HTML5 to become not a platform, but the mainstream development technology for smartphone apps. Cross-platform tools are already triggering an influx of web developers; We found that 60% of CPT users, irrespective of their primary tool, have more than five years experience in web development. Indeed, cross-platform tools have triggered an influx of web developers into mobile.

Android and Windows Phone have been constantly evolving, adding hundreds of new APIs from each major version to the next. Due to the rapid advancement of platforms, tools vendors will always be one or two steps behind in terms of features and access to the complete set of device capabilities. Developers that create demanding applications like 3D games or apps requiring intense user interaction, exceptionally deep user experience, or apps relying on specific features not available on all platforms will need to be developed using the native SDK. Cross-platform tools will therefore be complementary to native SDKs.

Cross platform tools will become “business as usual”

As the platform landscape remains fragmented for the foreseeable future, cross-platform tools will become “business as usual” The future of mobile development is multi-platform – fewer and fewer developers will be able to afford to be confined to a single platform with the limited user reach and monetisation opportunities that implies. The adoption of cross-platform tools is driven by the ability to reach masses of users, which is the primary consideration for most developer segments. Cross-platform tools are indeed the only cost-effective vehicle for these developers to reach a wide mass of users, and we expect CPT usage to become commonplace a result.


Multi-screen and the evolving points of competition

At the onset of 2012, CPT developer selection criteria are heavily skewed towards the breadth of platforms supported by each tool. This picture will change considerably as cross-platform tools vendors advance their products to cover all the major mobile platforms. We expect that by mid-2013, the platforms covered by a CPT will move from a point of differentiation to a point of parity. In that timeframe, we expect the points of competition to move to later stages of the app lifecycle, with vendors offering component marketplaces, end-to-end workflow tools, device adaptation tools, app publishing services and post-download services.

In the sea of 100+ cross-platform tools, vendors are beginning to differentiate by targeting three distinct developer segments: those working on games, enterprise or media apps. Developers in these three segments face distinctly different challenges, work in distinctly different environments and as such need very different CPT solutions. As tool vendors try to survive in the “red ocean” of dozens of cross-platform tools, we expect CPTs to emerge for the financial sector, media publishers and the healthcare/medical sector.

Multi-screen is the next frontier. The battle of the software ecosystems is raging across many screens – mobile, tablet, PC and soon smart TV devices – and multi-screen will be the next frontier for cross-platform tools. Already in our survey, 27% of respondents noted that they also target Windows PC and 24% target Mac desktops with their main cross-platform tool. However, the complexities of cross-platform development in a multi-screen environment are growing exponentially and beyond the simple sharing of the code between multiple platforms. Different screen types have different interaction models, input methods, screen sizes, go-to-market channels and pricing models, while developers working on different screens have use varying tool-chains, development cycles and collaboration processes. With the proliferation of users who own more than one connect screen, the next frontier for cross-platform tools will be multi-screen.

Lessons to be learned

Cross platform tools have previously faced criticism, most notably from Steve Jobs in his infamous open letter “Thoughts on Flash”. The next generation of tools are however rapidly coming to market or maturing with abundant backing from the financial and developer community. The cross-platform tools market is in a state of abundant volatility and we see continual flux, as developers try a tool, and then churn to a different one. This is a market with no clear winners or losers. It’s a market where there is little developer loyalty, and perceptions are still being formed. Now is the time for well-funded vendors with great tools to prove themselves and establish a firm beachhead.

– Seth
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100 Million Club – Top smartphone facts and figures in 2011

The mobile market is evolving, as increasing smartphone penetration is quickly shifting the balance of power between the major players. Marketing Manager, Matos, examines the latest smartphone facts and figures and announces the winners and losers of the platform and handset race for 2011. Also presenting our latest 100 Million Club report – in infographic format!

Quick facts on the rise of Android

100 Million Club - Facts and figures of the smartphone market in 2011Android is the undisputed king of smartphone platforms, at least in terms of shipments. While this was true even at the end of 2010, Android grew even further in 2011, grabbing a highly impressive 49% share in the smartphone market – this can easily be translated as follows: 1 in 2 smartphones sold in 2011 was an Android device.

Moreover, Android’s share keeps growing, rising from 42% share in the first half of 2011 to a crushing 54% share in H2 2011. This level of pervasiveness has not been seen since Symbian’s heyday, but let’s not forget that Symbian didn’t have to face such stifling competition back then.

In terms of ecosystems, while Android’s 350K apps are still lagging behind Apple’s 540+K available apps, there’s been an upset in the volume of downloads, bringing Android to the pole position. Due to a much larger installed base, Android’s downloads are growing exponentially and the Market will catch up to Apple’s number of cumulative downloads within a couple of years. Granted, a lot of these apps are Viber, Shazam and Angry Birds, but in any case Google’s business model is all about ads and an addressable audience, not device sales and downloads.

Furthermore, the Android brand name is being bolstered by large marketing budgets that provide numerous ads, news items and mentions across all printed and digital media. Android has now become a household name, mainly thanks to the support and promotion of telcos and handset OEMs, who have managed to position the platform as the new and exciting operating system for users.

Rivals to the smartphone throne

Android’s number one rival right now, iOS, also enjoyed a very good year. In 2011, Apple climbed to the second position as a smartphone vendor behind Samsung with 19% share, although it’s a very close call between the two companies. In the fourth quarter, Apple exceeded all expectations and sold 37 million iPhones, claiming nearly 24% share in that quarter. It’s quite telling that in Q4, Apple sold 80% more handsets than its previous record of 20 million, in the second quarter of 2011.

Although they’re still behind Samsung as a smartphone vendor, Apple is the clear winner in terms of both revenues and profits. Aided by the high sales of all iOS devices, including iPods and iPads, Apple raked in a 32 billion USD profit during 2011 – a figure comparable to the GDP of a small country. The question remains whether Apple will be able to repeat such a feat and continue this trend, taking market share away from platforms leaking market share, like Symbian and BlackBerry.

The third mobile platform in terms of shipments for 2011 was Symbian. There’s not much to discuss on Symbian – its expiration date is coming soon and Nokia has to convert as many Symbian sales as possible to Windows Phone sales, as quickly as possible. However, Nokia had announced four new Symbian models in 2012, but they’re only releasing one.

BlackBerry also finds itself in a quagmire, with declining market share, a decrease in share value from around $60 in Jan 2011 to as low as $16 in early 2012 underwhelming revenues and an underused ecosystem. Although RIM’s co-CEOs have stepped down and the company is under new leadership, this is a difficult boat to turn around and RIM is going to have to follow the simplest rule of all in mobile: innovate or die.

Bada snatched the 5th position of the smartphone platform market away from Windows Phone, outselling Microsoft’s platform by nearly two to one. Samsung’s platform for low-end smartphone continues to turn heads and the company seems to have even bigger plans for bada. However, both bada and Tizen (Samsung’s new open source project) are unable to compete in terms of developer mindshare. But that’s fine, as the primary use for bada or Tizen to Samsung is as a negotiating leverage against Google’s Android.

Last, but not least, we have Windows Phone as the sixth smartphone platform, with approximately 2% market share. Despite the fact that Windows Phone has been out for over a year now, Microsoft’s new mobile OS has so far met with lukewarm results – a fact commented upon by Microsoft’s Stephen Ballmer himself. Nokia’s new Lumia line has the potential to install Windows Phone in the upper echelons of the platform market, tapping the vibrant developer community that has sprung up around the platform, but there are still many risks and difficulties ahead. The fact of the matter is that WP’s chief rivals, Android and iOS, have the high ground in this battle of ecosystems and it’s never easy fighting uphill.

The Android court

The top 5 smartphone vendors in 2011, accounting for 42% of the total shipments [UPDATE: accounting for 75% of total smartphone shipments,] were Samsung, Apple, Nokia, RIM and HTC – out of these, two are (mostly) Android vendors.

100MC - Top Smartphone Vendors in 2011

Although many Android vendors enjoyed a good year in 2011, it was Samsung that took the lion’s share. Samsung doubled their smartphone shipments in just six months, going from 32 million in H1 2011 to over 60 million in H2. Nearly 80% of those were Android shipments leaving Samsung as the single most important Android vendor in 2011. Samsung seems to have sold approximately one in three Android devices in 2011.

HTC did reach many milestones during 2011, such as becoming the no1 smartphone vendor in the US during Q3, but its shipments declined in Q4 and are expected to decline even further in the first quarter of 2012.

Other vendors who mainly ship Android smartphones, like Sony Ericsson, LG, Huawei and ZTE are indeed reporting an increased number of handset shipments, but they still have a lot of catching up to do. The big question for 2012 is how Google will play the Motorola card, with the deal having been green-lighted by authorities on both sides of the Atlantic. While some analysts have put forward the theory that Motorola will become a benchmark for Android handsets and will be used to keep in check other Android vendors, it’s quite likely that Google will choose a different path. Motorola’s acquisition is more closely linked to its patents, with the company’s 17 thousand patents more likely to be used as an insurance policy against Apple’s relentless legal onslaught.


Android’s expansion continues

Smartphone penetration continues to grow at an impressive pace; the smartphone market grew by 43% in 2011, from nearly 300 million shipments in 2010 to over 480 million in 2011. Penetration is expected to continue to increase and reach well into the 40% range during 2012.

It’s highly likely that, at least for the time being, Android is going to continue expanding and maintaining its current high market share. What’s more important to Google, though, is getting Android on as many screens as possible. Android is already making an impact on the tablet market, rising from 29% market share at the end of 2010 to 39% at the end of 2011. While Android has a lot of ground to cover in this particular market, it’s slowly stealing market share away from the dominant iPad, while keeping other competing platforms, like QNX and Windows, at bay. Another big bet for Google is TV; Google goal is to get as many users as possible hooked on Android, across as many screens as possible.

Feedback welcome, as always.
– Matos (@visionmobile)

Microsoft-Nokia: A Tale of Two Broken Business Models

[The launch of the Lumia line marks the pivotal point in the Microsoft-Nokia partnership. But how successful will it be? VisionMobile Strategy Director Michael Vakulenko voices his concerns about the partnership between Nokia and Microsoft.]

VisionMobile: Nokia + Microsoft: A tale of two broken business models

[updated] Nokia and Microsoft are fighting two very different battles: Microsoft is trying to protect its aging PC software licensing business. Nokia, on the other hand, fights to survive as a as a handset manufacturer, hoping to see profits of the smartphone business. There is one thing in common, though: Both were disrupted by fundamental shifts in the mobile industry.

The basis for competition in software and mobile has changed – the once-successful business models of Microsoft and Nokia can no longer ensure profitable growth. The partnership between the two companies cannot change that. Vic Gundotra of Google once cynically said that two turkeys don’t make an eagle. Or do they?

Microsoft: A PC company in the mobile age

Reports about “Microsoft making more money on Android than on Windows Phone”, make for a catchy headline, but miss the point. Microsoft’s mobile strategy is about reducing ecosystem churn, i.e. protecting revenues from Windows and Office licensing. Every iPhone or iPad sold, represents a user who might choose to move away from a PC or Office license. Every iPhone developer represents a developer who adds value to Apple ecosystem and not Microsoft’s.

As of January of 2012, Microsoft Windows & Windows Live, Server & Tools and Business divisions were responsible for over 75% of the revenues, but, more importantly, practically all of the operating income. The company reported weaker than-expected PC demand in the last quarter of 2011. Revenue of Windows & Windows Live Division fell 6 percent year over year (and this is during the lucrative holiday quarter!), and yet worse – operating income declined by 11 percent.

The company’s core business is challenged at multiple levels. iPhone and iPad users are increasingly choosing Mac as their next computer – Mac success means less Windows licensing revenues. Moreover, tablets are displacing netbooks and laptops, which were the hope of the PC industry until recently. Google and a slew of Internet startups are opening cracks in Microsoft Office defenses by pushing migration of productivity tools into the cloud.  The end result is ecosystem churn, which means less and less Windows and Office licenses sold.

Microsoft badly needs to renew its growth. See this excellent analysis by Adam Hartung, Forbes. But, Windows Phone is a “loss leader”, not a growth engine. It’s daydreaming to expect that Windows Phone license revenues will be able to pay back all the investment that was made and is being made into the platform. Even at a $20 license fee. As reported in March 2010, the Windows Mobile R&D team headcount back in FY 2009 was 2,000 staff with a total OPEX of $900 Million. The numbers could only have grown since then.

Partnering with a fast-declining Nokia buys Microsoft neither market share nor new revenue engines. First and foremost, Microsoft needs to establish significant market share for Windows Phone in North America — the hotbed of mobile innovation.

However, Nokia is traditionally weak in North America in both market share and brand awareness. Plus the European reception of Lumia was lukewarm with slight above one million devices sold during the Christmas launch season. Instead of placing so much faith in the partnership with Nokia, Microsoft could have focused their efforts on a close alliance with the faster-moving Samsung as the key OEM for the Windows Phone platform.

Microsoft will be challenged to find new growth engines. Up until now, Microsoft has been losing money in Internet and mobile. In the last quarter of 2011 alone, the company’s Online Services Division lost $458 Million adding to mounting multi-billion loses in the last six years (see this revealing Business Insider chart).

Throwing boat-loads of money at mobile and Internet without a winning business model can only work for limited time for Microsoft. Mounting costs will inevitably raise the concerns of impatient investors over the viability of its mobile strategy.


Nokia: a handset maker in the software age

Apple has outpaced Nokia not only because of better products, but because it changed the basis of competition. The competition has changed from a competition of devices to a competition of software ecosystems. Nokia understood the challenge back in 2007, but in a classic case of Christensen’s Innovator’s Dilemma, was late to respond.

Today, the mobile handset market is driven by owners of software ecosystems, companies like Apple, Google and Microsoft. The role of handset OEMs has been reduced to that of a foot solder in the broader battle between ecosystems. OEM business has become a commodity business, where OEMs have little room for differentiation, besides price.

Since Nokia was slow in fostering its own software ecosystem, the company had little choice but to join Motorola, Sony-Ericsson, Samsung, LG, ZTE, Huawei and a host of smaller OEMs in the fierce “competition to the best”. Michael Porter calls competition to the best “the granddaddy of all strategy mistakes”.

The partnership with Microsoft might not be able to save Nokia from the perils of commoditisation. Windows Phone is a very attractive product, but it arrived to the market two years late. Apple and Google had enough time to establish strong network effects for their iOS and Android platforms. These network effects between users and app developers ensure explosive growth, user lock-in and multi-billion dollar investments by developers (see our recent post on how platforms are not created equal). In these hyper competitive conditions, Windows Phone devices will be challenged to command premium prices – like it it not, Nokia will have to compete on price with Android devices.

In retrospect, Nokia associated itself with a fledgling software ecosystem that is yet to build strong network effects. With both profitability and volumes in question, Nokia finds itself in a one-way street, depending on Microsoft to help support its smartphone business (see how Microsoft paid $250 Million to Nokia in Q4 2011).

Given the new market conditions, Nokia’s real competition is not iPhone or Android, but Samsung.  Samsung is not only the largest, but also the most profitable Android OEM. Its true competitive advantage lies in its vertical integration across the most expensive smartphone hardware components: the display, application and baseband processors and memory. Samsung even owns the fabs that manufacture many of these components. Samsung’s superior business model has launched the company to the second place of the industry in terms of profit share, second only to Apple.

Nokia’s business model of high-margin, branded OEM is in question and its dependency on Windows Phone alone is a weakness.  Nokia would be much better off if the company manufactured both Android and Windows Phone devices. Nokia, with its economies of scale and strong brand name, could auction placement of either OS to the highest bidder on its devices.

Nokia is running out of time and Samsung is gaining market share eagerly. How soon will Microsoft need to knock on Samsung’s door offering to pay billions for promoting Windows Phone on millions of Samsung devices?


Insisting on sailing upwind

In this partnership, Nokia and Microsoft insist on sailing upwind with their sails flapping (those of you who’ve had any experience sailing will know how boring this can be). Combining two business models of the 1990’s won’t help the two companies regain their positions in the new world order, dominated by companies with Internet-age business models, like Apple, Google, Amazon and Facebook.

As it seems, the only way out for Nokia and Microsoft would be the acquisition of Nokia’s smartphone business by Microsoft, as Andreas Constantinou predicted a year ago on this blog.

— Michael
[Michael Vakulenko is a Strategy Director at VisionMobile, where he focuses on mobile platform research and mobile ecosystem economics. Michael has been working in the mobile industry for over 16 years, starting his career in wireless in Qualcomm. Michael has a broad experience across many aspects of the mobile industry, including smartphone ecosystems, mobile services, handset software, wireless chipsets and network infrastructure. He can be reached at michael [/at/]]

The Fight for Voice: The saga of telcos vs. OTT players

[The golden era for telcos is slowly coming to an end, as they face increasing pressure from OTT (Over the Top) players, like Viber and Skype. Guest author Paul Golding assesses the disruption of Internet players to the telco industry and envisions the future of Voice]

VisionMobile - Telcos vs. OTTs - The Fight for Voice

Carriers have built vast empires and generated piles of cash by doing what ‘it says on the tin’: carrying voice. Not long ago, their services were the only way to carry voice over wired or wireless connections. However, the internet changed the game. With affordable and fast enough data connections, plus the freedom to install their own apps in a growing base of smartphones (at around 35% of total handset shipments in Q4), users can pick-and-mix alternative voice solutions, like Skype, Vonage or Viber.

Early Skype users would have experienced the mode of disruption documented by Clayton Christensen in his book Innovator’s Dilemma. Skype provided a low-cost (free) alternative to incumbent solutions, but with a fairly poor user experience characteristic of a disruptive early-stage technology. Sure, VoIP wasn’t that new, but as a downloadable offering to the masses via an ordinary household internet connection, it was.

From Disturbance to Disruption

As Christensen’s theories predicted, carriers mostly saw Skype as a minor disturbance, insufficient to warrant revision of their strategies.  But it marked a pivotal moment in the evolution of communications, which was the unbundling of voice from the carrier network. In other words, consumers can take their data connections from carrier X and their voice services from provider Y: Skype, Viber, or whomever. The industry refers to these unbundled services as “Over The Top” (OTT) solutions.

However, the minor disturbance has become, well – disturbing – at least to some carriers. The modes of disruption have been aided by several key trends, in no particular order:

  1. Open (enough) device operating systems – Android and iOS
  2. More afforable data tariffs and speedier internet connections
  3. Dramatic lowering of barriers to entry for internet platforms of all kinds
  4. Consumer behavioural changes
  5. Increase in carrier inertia preventing timely responses to OTT threats

These trends, and more, are covered extensively in my new book “Connected Services,” which, like this blog post, I wrote using my own “notes from the field” in the last 21 years of working in mobile generally, but the last 7 years specifically trying to evangelize Web paradigms to the boards and senior management of various carriers.

Open Device Platforms = choice

The consequence of open smartphone platforms is increasingly well understood. It enables users to choose how they want to experience their communications services. Viber is one of the best examples. It essentially replaces the standard dialer on the device with a custom one, not too dissimilar in experience, but enables calls to be placed for free via a data connection.

During the catastrophic Java ME era, before Android, replacement of the dialer on the phone was unthinkable. That’s all changed. The iPhone still doesn’t quite enable a seamless replacement of the dialer, as it won’t run an alternative at “boot-up,” but Android certainly does. Mr Number, a Palo Alto start-up, are busy exploiting this fact to provide an alternative Android dialer that essentially “unbundles” the calling and messaging experience, initially to manage call and texting spam. However, as with all disruptive technologies, the initial service is only the thin edge of the disruptive wedge. It is easy to imagine plenty of powerful disruptive scenarios orchestrated by or between these types of solution, enough to push the carriers out forever.

Faster, Cheaper Connections

Better technology gives us more bits for less money. Here in the US, that trend has jumped dramatically with the widespread availability of 4G (LTE) connections and devices. There is a class of users today who don’t need to talk that much, or at all, and so can easily do so via their data bundle using an app like Viber. In other words, they don’t need any voice minutes. These are the early adopters who threaten to disrupt carriers by usurping the “Carrier X” experience with the “Viber experience” or the “Whatsapp” experience. That road leads to obscurity and eventual death no matter how loudly and often marketing say “we’ve got the brand.”

Low-cost Low-friction Software Platforms

The remarkable fact about Viber, Mr Number and other OTT apps is that they are built by tiny start-ups with comparatively little budget but stellar teams. These financial lightweights are busy stealing the core communications experience away from carriers who might spend more on a single TV ad than the budgets of many of these start-ups combined.

The power of the developer has increased dramatically in the last few years and continues to grow. The proliferation of Software-, Platform and Infrastructure-as-a-Service products has lowered the barriers to entry to a point where any aspiring entrepreneur and a few developers can build services on tiny budgets that can challenge mighty carriers.

Moreover, entirely new breeds of software platforms have arisen to meet the needs of start-ups with aspirations in the voice and messaging world. Twilio is the perhaps the most talked about example. They provide powerful voice and messaging APIs without investing a single cent in infrastructure. Upon visiting their offices in San Francisco, they took great delight in revealing their “sophisticated” infrastructure – a solitary and lonely router sitting in an otherwise empty wiring closet. It would be funny if it wasn’t so painfully true. Twilio is built using Amazon’s Web Services, as are so many start-ups these days, starting at only a few dollars a month!

The emergence of a category of Communications-as-a-Service (CaaS) providers is an interesting development in the platforms market. Twilio were not the first. Companies like Voxeo were already there with services like, also offering powerful voice and messaging APIs with on-demand pricing to developers. I know that many of the well-known “darling” messaging start-ups in Silicon Valley are using Tropo “under the hood.” There are even companies specializing in API-enabling technologies, like and developer-community design agencies, like AlphaPunk, such is the nature of software ecosystems.

Shifts in Consumer Sophistication

Blackberry Messenger, Whatsapp, Viber, Skype are no longer used by nerdy early adopters. Grandparents are using Skype to keep in touch with their grand kids. Indeed, a whole class of use cases has arisen just around Skype, from remote learning to baby-sitting. The tipping point for this shift has been the apps revolution, accelerated by the iPhone. Thanks to the marketing education of Apple and others (“there’s an app for that”), it is so easy to install an alternative service via the click of a button – one click and the “Carrier X” experience is toast!

Increase in Carrier Inertia

Relative to “born on the Web (2.0)” companies, carriers are the proverbial tortoise alongside the hare. They have exceptionally powerful voice and messaging apparatus, but not available in any form that enables innovation to happen.

Contrary to what some might think, carriers are not dumb. This is a point explored well by Christensen in his analysis of companies who failed to respond to disruptive innovation – “these weren’t companies run by idiots.” However, carriers do have is inertia, aggravated by the following factors:

  1. Their IT systems are too complicated, lacking in agility and mostly deployed in tactical “stove-pipe” fashion. By the way, even early darlings, like Yahoo, have the same problem (perhaps counter-intuitively for so-called “Silicon Valley” companies).
  2. IT systems are managed by external vendors with typically long development cycle times.
  3. Carriers are NOT technology companies. They lack the software expertise of a Voxeo or Twilio, who build their own platforms.
  4. The necessarily risk-cleansed IT frameworks and paradigms can’t in any way support agile innovation, even if carriers wanted to (and some of them do).

Running Across Quicksand

Carriers like Telefonica are trying to do something about the OTT threat by simply embracing it, like with their Network-as-a-Service initiative BlueVia and their Viber-like client, called O2 Connect. They are amongst the most innovative of carriers, relatively speaking.

In my earlier work for Telefonica and O2 UK, the order of the day was to preach the mantra of low-friction platforms. Some success was achieved through the introduction of relatively radical platform ideas. One example is, the cloud storage solution with its real-time texting API. It was built in a matter of weeks, API first, using software technologies du jour, including so-called “No-SQL” storage and “trendy” languages. However, the messaging integration took up to three times longer to “implement,” by which I mostly mean configure some settings deep in the bowels of the infrastructure.

A more ambitious initiative was connFu, a project to build a set of low-friction web-friendly voice and messaging APIs in a fashion. Indeed, it is public knowledge that Telefonica collaborated with Voxeo in the production of Rayo, a new web-friendly API for building real-time communications services. The approach was 100% “Web 2.0” and light years ahead of other carriers, yet still not aggressive enough compared with the ongoing onslaught of OTT solutions. So why isn’t it enough?

Software DNA

It all boils down to one thing – the rise of the developer (facilitated by all of the above trends). Carriers have always had a rocky time figuring out developers and software paradigms. Even now, they mostly continue to misunderstand how software economics really work, in general, never mind the outlying, yet tremendously influential, innovation machine of Silicon Valley, which is like a mini empire of developers.

It isn’t just about app stores and their rev-share models! The software ecosystem that surrounds the Web is far more sophisticated and penetrating. Developers, by which I mean all those engaged in the ecosystem, not just the stereotypical “Garage guy” (which is how many carriers perceive them) yield increasingly significant power over the way that digital services are consumed and will be consumed in the future. This is an inescapable fact.

The digital revolution is all taking place via software, up and down the stack – from new database technologies, through new operating systems, all the way up to the apps, which are mostly the tip of the software iceberg that the carriers are crashing into. Nonetheless, the band keeps on playing on the deck and the porters keep shuffling the deck chairs in vain, yet well intended, attempts to innovate. But most of this will come to nothing and the OTT guys will triumph until carriers realize that having software DNA is a necessary condition for innovating in the world of digital services that many carriers believe they occupy. This too, is an inescapable fact.

– Paul

[Paul Golding is originally from the UK, but now living in Palo Alto, US. He has 16 patents in mobile and is the author of several leading books about mobile apps and mobile strategy, used in top companies and universities. In his 21 years in mobile, he has been Chief Architect, CTO and various senior tech/product roles for companies across the world, from start-ups to multi-nationals.]