Unity leads the way in developer satisfaction

As software continues to eat the world (to paraphrase Marc Andreessen), software developers fulfill an ever more critical role in the progress of technology and, by extension, society. Supporting developer productivity is good for business. Those developers then become innovators – co-creators – that give a boost to your core business.

It’s also challenging. Developer programs consist of a myriad of activities, ranging from simple providing sample code and developer education, to tooling, to in-person events and online communication. It’s hard to be great at everything, and it’s hard to allocate effort and money effectively for maximum impact.

Every six months we benchmark top developer programs against each other. First, by measuring what developers value in those resources and activities, in all its diversity across several segments of the developer population. Second, by highlighting the best practice leaders: those vendors that are doing an excellent job in specific aspects of developer programs, to whom you can look for inspiration and insights on how to improve. There is no single leader across all of the 20 activities we measure – everyone can improve somewhere.

unity leads developer satisfaction

The top spot in terms of developer satisfaction is taken by Unity, with an overall developer satisfaction score of 75 out of 100. Unity shows exceptional performance on several attributes: tutorials, how-to videos & webinars, and official forums. This may be skewed by the fact that their products cater to a specific subset of developers (game developers) who might score attributes differently than others.

Google, Microsoft, and Mozilla are not only among the largest developer programs; they lead the pack in terms of developer satisfaction and engagement. Other major developer companies like Amazon, Facebook, Oracle, and Apple follow at some distance.

This doesn’t imply, however, that only the companies with the most traction and the biggest budgets can create excellent developer support programs. The living proof of that are Unity and Tencent. As we said, Unity has the highest developer satisfaction of all programs in our list. Tencent, the producer of WeChat who mostly addresses a geographical developer segment in China, has a developer satisfaction on par with Facebook and well beyond Twitter’s, and one of the highest levels of engagement in our survey. Other companies like Intel and Cisco may have moderate overall performances, but lead the way in important attributes such as training, technical support, or access to devices.

The study above shows data from the 12th edition SlashData Developer Economics survey. Over 21,200 respondents were asked which developer programs they used and how satisfied they are with them. These respondents came from 162 countries around the world and span mobile, desktop, IoT, cloud, AR/VR and machine learning developers and data scientists. The results were collected by SlashData over a period of six weeks between November and December 2016.

To access the full study drop us a note at sales@slashdata.co or download the brochure

Return on Developer Investment

My most fun job ever was as a C++ developer. Ok, I don’t have much grey hair yet, but I fondly remember the late 90s and the challenges of writing a background synchronisation application on a Compaq iPaq. And reverse engineering Mozilla’s Navigator into an XSLT parser.

My second most fun job ever has been building a company that helps the world understand developers, with research. We’ve come a long way – and a few pivots – from surveying the pulse of 400 developers in 2009 to 30,000 developers annually in 2016. That’s a lot of data – in fact more than our analyst team can chew.

It’s a privilege to be working with some of the biggest names in tech – I ‘ve learned a lot the past 2 years. Earlier this month, Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook, Adobe, Intel, Oracle and many more joined our first Future Developer Summit, and shared some of their best practices in how they work with developers. I ‘d like to share some the learnings here.

Return on Developer Investment.

You would think that with billions of dollars spent every year on building tools for developers, running hackathons, loyalty programs, tutorials and how-tos, evangelist and MVP programs – the platform leaders would have figured it all out. Yet, with so much money being spent on developer tools and marketing there is no standard for measuring the Return on Developer Investment.

Most companies represented at the Future Developer Summit shared how they measure success. At their inception, developer-facing orgs measure success by number of developers touched – but that’s a meaningless metric, a dinosaur from the age of print marketing. Some platforms are using NPS (net promoter score), polling their active developers once a year for how likely they are to recommend the platform. Many are informing product decisions based on developer comments (“will you ever fix that”?) – you’ll be surprised how many decisions are taken based on “the devs that I spoke to said..”.

Other developer relations teams are measuring success through the number of apps in the store, and the number of apps using signature APIs. In the case of open source projects, a popular metric is GitHub stars, forks and commits over time. The more sophisticated platforms track the Return on Developer Investment funnel from SDK downloads to app download and use. But there isn’t a consistent way to measure how the investments in hackathons, tutorials, how-tos, loaner devices, evangelism programs and some many more developer-facing activities are paying off for the likes of Google, Amazon and Facebook.

Quality of apps, not quantity.

Another theme of the Future Developer Summit was the need for quality, not quantity of applications at the start of an ecosystem. B2B ecosystems like Slack and Intuit prioritise quality; Poorly written messaging apps can damage not just the perception of Slack, but also the perception of chatbots in general. Similarly, a poorly written app for the QuickBooks platform can wreak havoc to sensitive financial data for thousands of small businesses. As a result both Slack and Intuit have very stringent app review processes, including weeks of testing, usability and security reviews. To improve quality for bots, Slack has pioneered a “Botness” program, bringing together bot platforms and leading bot developers; the aim is to “make bots suck less” i.e. improve the bot user experience and avert a long-term damage to the reputation of chat bots. There are already 250 members signed up and the next event is on November 4 in NYC .

The next Future Developer Summit will focus on best practices for developer relations. If you ‘d like to be part of the invite-only audience of platform leaders, register your interest at www.futuredeveloper.io


Facebook’s next pivot

Facebook is now starting to hit physical limits to its digital growth. Three quarters of the company’s revenue are coming from North America and Europe where user growth is slowing down. Facebook’s average revenue per user in the “rest of the world” region, which includes many developing nations in South America and Africa with highest user growth rates, is 10 times lower than the average revenue per user in North America ($0.90 vs. $9.30 per user respectively). To grow its business in emerging economies [tweetable]Facebook needs to look into business models beyond advertising and app installs[/tweetable].


Signs are that Facebook is preparing its next pivot. Piecing together Facebook moves and hires, we believe that [tweetable]Facebook will be launching a social marketplace combined with financial services[/tweetable]. This will unlock new multi-billion dollar markets in the world’s fastest growing economies. A pivot which could be 10 times bigger than its pivot to mobile, which since starting in 2012 was responsible for 76% the company’s ad revenue in Q2 2015.

From social network to social marketplace

BuzzFeed recently reported that Facebook is experimenting with building out shops within Facebook Pages. E-commerce shops within Facebook pages will turn the social network into a humongous social marketplace where the entire shopping experience will occur within Facebook — from product discovery to checkout.

Facebook has created a sprawling mobile messaging empire with its Whatsapp, Facebook Messenger and Instagram apps – reaching 800M, 700M and 300M active monthly users, respectively. In doing so, Facebook is not leading, but following. Facebook is copying the business model of WeChat, Line and KakaoTalk, the asian social messaging apps, which proved that mobile messaging can be monetised through e-commerce. WeChat, Line and KakaoTalk evolved into all-encompassing ecommerce platforms where users can shop for everything from stickers and games, to groceries and cars, and even book taxis and flights.

Instagram is already used by people to sell everything from goats to art, and Facebook should be able to turn it together with Messenger and Whatsapp into powerful mobile e-commerce platforms.

Adding payment services to Facebook’s messaging empire makes perfect sense. David Markus, who left the position of Paypal CEO to lead Facebook messaging platform, said in his interview to Wired:

“VOIP is just one way that the company hopes to use the messaging app as a platform for much bigger things, including online payments.”

In March 2015, Facebook unveiled a US-only peer-to-peer payment service for Facebook Messenger that lets you connect your Visa or Mastercard debit card and tap a “$” button to send friends money on iOS, Android, and desktop with zero fees.

From Internet.org to Bank.org

For now, the Facebook payment service is an extension of a traditional banking service. But what about the countries where Facebook pushes its Internet.org initiative for affordable Internet access? To make payments work in countries without established banking services Facebook needs to create its own “backroom” infrastructure for “storing” money and become a digital bank.

The initial opportunity for Facebook is remittance services – a global $583 billion market controlled by  Western Union and MoneyGram. But this is just the beginning.

A bank is a financial intermediary that accepts deposits and channels them into loans, where banks make most of their money. In other words, [tweetable]a bank is a platform connecting customers that need credit with customers that have capital surpluses[/tweetable]. To be successful, a bank needs to manage risk and minimize defaults.

Financial services in emerging economies require new business models and approaches to managing risk. For example, InVenture runs a Mkopo Rahisi service in Kenya that with the help of an Android app creates a reliable credit score by analysing more than 10,000 data points from the activity on a customer’s mobile handset. Instead of giving this score to banks, InVenture services the loans independently. Shivani Siroya, founder & CEO of InVenture writes:

“Since our app launched in Kenya last spring we’ve provided millions of dollars of loans to tens of thousands of customers. Our repayment rate is at more than 85% and more than 90% of our borrowers come back for a second, third, fourth, even fifth loan.”

Facebook’s ability to manage credit risk based on information from its social network would be second to none. Imagine how big such lending service for the unbanked can become at Facebook scale!

Facebook was always an interesting company to watch. It could well happen that Facebook’s advertising and app install businesses that get so much attention today are just a stepping stone to a much bigger ambition. The ambition of becoming the ecommerce and financial infrastructure for the world’s fastest growing economies.

Voice: Breaking free from the telecom business models

It’s very clear that software companies took the lead in innovation around voice communications. The telecom industry is lost in the woods arguing about standards, technology and regulation, while Facebook, WhatsApp, Google, WeChat and numerous startups are focused on new use cases and business model innovation.


Telco is lost in the woods (again)

Telephony is considered a declining business, despite globally increasing dependence on communications. [tweetable]People are not communicating less – they just attribute less and less value to telephony[/tweetable]. Today, many everyday communication needs are better served by alternatives that don’t fall within the narrow definition of telephony.

We wrote about freeing voice from telephony almost 3 years ago in our Telco Innovation Toolbox. Today I’m excited to see the future of voice unfolding in full force in front of our eyes.

Facebook wants to take over the dialer

Did you notice how Facebook has become increasingly bold in everything related to voice and video services? Messenger’s 600 Million users can call each other using voice and video without leaving the app. Facebook-owned Whatsapp also allows its 800 Million users to speak with each other within the app. The huge scale of Facebook voice services surpasses any telco. Compare that with China Mobile, the number one telecom operator in the word, which had 808 Million subscribers as of January 2015.

Facebook understands that [tweetable]voice is central to human communication and will always remain so[/tweetable]. Therefore the company wants to make sure that people will speak with each other inside the walled gardens of the company’s social networks. Facebook doesn’t look at voice as a revenue source. Voice is a universal need and therefore it is an effective way to attract and engage users. David Marcus, who left the position of PayPal President to run Facebook Messenger, says:

“VOIP is just one way that the company hopes to use the messaging app as a platform for much bigger things, including online payments.”

Google Fi wants to take over the core network

Google trails behind still trying to break through with its Hangout platform. The recently announced Google Fi service is a shot in the direction of reinventing voice and video communications.

So far, most media and blogosphere attention is focused on Google Fi pricing and network switching technology. I believe that these are the least interesting aspects of the Google’s initiative. It’s pretty clear that Google has bigger plans in mind. Google Fi unbundles voice service from the telecom network turning Project Fi into a platform for innovation in communication services. Nick Fox, Google VP of Communications Products writes on the company blog:

“As mobile devices continually improve how you connect to people and information, it’s important that wireless connectivity and communication keep pace and be fast everywhere, easy to use, and accessible to everyone. That’s why today we’re introducing Project Fi, a program to explore this opportunity by introducing new ideas through a fast and easy wireless experience.”

Today Google uses pricing and network switching technology to attract an initial user base and seed Project Fi for the next stage. The next stage will be opening the platform to Google’s huge base of mobile and backend developers, together with an ever-growing number of Android handset makers. This is when Google Fi will become truly interesting allowing Google to “pull an Android” on the core business of telecom operators and create a credible competition to Facebook’s communication services.

Much like Facebook, Google is going into telecom not for wireless plan revenues, but to compete asymmetrically, transferring profits from the telecom industry to its core online ad business.

Twilio wants to take over the telecom API

Twilio has proven that developers have a genuine interest in telecommunication services. The company offers an API platform for programmatic access to voice telephony, SMS and now instant messaging. The company reports that 700,000 developers have already registered to use its platform.

Contrary to the many failed telco attempts at driving revenue with APIs, Twilio proves that telecom developers and APIs can be a good business too. The company is worth over $1 Billion. Twilio chief executive Jeff Lawson says the company hit an annual run rate of $100 million in revenue in 2014, and is adding $1 million in annualized revenue every seven days.

The company actively nurtures its main asset – the ecosystem of developers. Twilio teamed up with three well-known venture capital investors, Bessemer Venture Partners, DFJ and Redpoint Ventures to create a $50 Million investment fund to invest in companies using the Twilio API.

Twilio flourishes where telco failed: creating an attractive business by building a developer ecosystem on top of commodity telecom services. Developers can reinvent point-to-point telephony into thousands of use cases that telcos were unable to realise.

Microsoft wants to take over business services

Microsoft is about to join the fray as well. The first move was replacing Lync with Skype, a still hugely popular VoIP service, as a core of its suite of business communication services. For Microsoft, voice is a way to boost Office – its well-entrenched suite of business tools.

Exciting times ahead

Telephony may be in terminal decline, as most analysts agree. Voice and video will however remain a central part of human communication. These are very exciting times in telecoms for those who understand that [tweetable]”digital” is not a channel, but a new set of business models[/tweetable]. Software companies that use these new business models will use voice communication asymmetrically transferring profits from legacy telephony to their non-telecom business.

The cross-platform platform: Facebook’s developer strategy

When Facebook was first listed on the stock exchange in 2012, investors were concerned. Had the company missed the mobile wave? 5 years after the launch of the iPhone, most of Facebook’s revenues still came from desktop. Zuckerberg’s team recovered. Today mobile already represents 60% of revenues, and Facebook is about to double down. Apps will become a central part of the social network’s monetisation of mobile. Stijn Schuermans shines a light on Facebook’s new mobile developer strategy.


Two years ago we wrote that Facebook was a prime candidate to become the leader of the mobile web; the one who would take care of the missing platform ingredients (reach, discovery, monetization). It should come as no surprise then that over the past year Facebook has shown a renewed focus on helping developers to build – grow – monetize their apps across all mobile platforms. Zuckerberg himself called it the cross-platform platform in his keynote speech on f8. We couldn’t have said it better ourselves.


The mobile platforms of Apple and Google became so successful because of the large amount of apps that they drew in. For developers, however, this meant heavy competition, few opportunities to stick out and a difficult environment to build a business on. [tweetable]Facebook now positions itself as the developer’s partner that helps to de-commoditize apps.[/tweetable] Facebook can lure mobile apps to its own camp by enabling developers to compete better. Apps will depend on Android and iOS to become available on the majority of handsets, and on Facebook to reach users, get discovered and make money.

Three aspects of Facebook’s strategy warrant a closer look.

Facebook builds a Mega-SDK

Facebook knows developers very well – hacker culture is deeply embedded in the company’s DNA. [tweetable]Facebook is now extending that developer DNA beyond company boundaries[/tweetable], just like Amazon has expanded its cloud operations DNA outside of the company by commercializing its Amazon Web Services (AWS). “Unlike their past developer efforts, which were all about pulling content onto Facebook, this year was about pushing Facebook’s infrastructure out into all kinds of mobile apps”, as Ben Thompson put it. It is a very natural way to empathise and connect with the developers who will build complements to Facebook and Amazon’s core businesses.

How is Facebook going to entice mobile developers? By building one of the first true Mega SDKs. [tweetable]As we predicted last July, Facebook’s Mega SDK will be built around app marketing services[/tweetable]:

  • analytics (relevant acquisitions include Parse, Monoidics, Little Eye Labs, Airlock)
  • promotion (more than 350 million app downloads through mobile app ads to date)
  • re-engagement (Engagement Ads were announced at f8)
  • monetization (the new Audience Network)

Half a dozen acquisitions in the past year, new products and a new developer incentive program (FbStart) all say that mobile developers are becoming incredibly important to Facebook. Although we have to stay careful of course: Mike Mace correctly points out that Facebook in the past has shown predatory behavior (incorporating 3rd party apps into the core product) and neglect for developers.

Digital identity is Facebook’s essence

Facebook’s new anonymous login and privacy features are not just about soothing the privacy pundits and the company’s most vocal users. They point to a deeper reality: digital identity is at the core of everything Facebook does.

[tweetable]Facebooks needs developers to make the Facebook digital identity ubiquitous across web and mobile[/tweetable]. The social network giant does that by reducing sign-up friction on the user side (hopefully also making developers more comfortable with integrating Facebook login). Social login was also a main feature of Parse. Several other highlights at the f8 conference (Send to Mobile, the mobile Like button, even Applinks) make most sense when viewing them as ways to increase the value of a Facebook login relative to a proprietary identity, another social login provider, or no identity at all.

[tweetable]Why this focus on identity? Because it’s crucial for Facebook’s survival[/tweetable]. A study from early 2014 claims that Facebook is about to lose 80% of its users, drawing a parallel with infectious diseases that spread, then flare out. Whether or not that comparison holds water, identity is a powerful antidote to this scenario. If users don’t just use Facebook as their social network, but also to access scores of unrelated services, then it will be hard for users to drop Facebook entirely. The company will still have to work hard to keep users active and engaged, but it will have an opportunity to try.

And, not to forget, Facebook gains a treasure trove of user behavior data that will reach far beyond its own services.

It was no accident that identity was the first item on the “cross-platform platform” list in the graph above, before social. On the web, Facebook also accounts for more than half of all social logins. It fully intends to achieve the same in mobile. The company’s future depends on it.

Facebook wants to become “Google for mobile”

Facebook and Google are mortal enemies, because they have the exact same business model.

  1. Create value for users by developing a score of valuable services (most of them free to use), and enlist developers to create thousands more.
  2. Deliver that value across all digital devices; on the web and on mobile.
  3. Capture value by selling user reach, engagement and hyper-targeting to advertisers.

It is no wonder then that there are many similarities between both companies. Facebook is taking that similarity to the next level with its new products.

The Audience Network is the AdMob of Facebook. It aims to become the key competitor for Google in mobile advertising.

But the boldest move is Applinks. [tweetable]In the most optimistic case, Applinks will allow Facebook to build the PageRank of mobile[/tweetable], a head-on attack on its arch rival. (Facebook has already kindly offered to host an index of all applinks.) At worst, Applinks can substantially boost Facebook’s app install business (CPI) through affiliate marketing schemes, earning revenue on each referral. That supports the Mega SDK for developers as well as Facebook’s own income statement.

Facebook buys back over 100B monthly engagement minutes it lost to Whatsapp

[tweetable]Facebook will live or die by user engagement, especially on mobile[/tweetable]. Whatsapp sends 18 billion and receives 36 billion messages a day. Let’s say it takes about 7 seconds to send a message and 3 seconds to read a message. This is based on watching how my teenage kids use Whatsapp texting and sending pictures. The math is simple:

((18B messages * 7sec + 36B messages * 3sec) / 60) * 30 = 117B minutes per month


People have limited time and attention. So most of these 110+ Billion minutes were taken from the potential Facebook mobile engagement minutes. Wow! That is the cost of doing nothing for Facebook.

There is more

Whatsapp is growing at about 1M users a day. That means Facebook looses at least an additional 12.4 Million engagement minutes each and every day. For simplicity I take into account only Whatsapp users that are active daily, which are 70% of 450M monthly active users:

3.9B minutes per day / 315M daily active users = 12.4 minutes per day per user

Now what?

The Whatsapp blog says:

“Here’s what will change for you, our users: nothing.

The company remains independent and loyal to its promise of “No ads!”. There will be no immediate monetisation opportunities for Facebook. What can be there for Facebook beyond averting future disaster of Whatsapp killing Facebook mobile engagement? Or even worth, falling into Google’s hostile hands?

Mark Zuckerberg writes about the acquisition:

Our mission is to make the world more open and connected. We do this by building services that help people share any type of content with any group of people they want. WhatsApp will help us do this by continuing to develop a service that people around the world love to use every day.

Will we see 450M mobile numbers brought in by Whatsapp coming into play helping Facebook connect people? Time will tell, but the potential is there for Facebook to become huge integrated communication provider on par with China Mobile, the world’s largest mobile operator.

(China Mobile has 700M subscribers but, given that many people have two phones, the number of users is much lower and close to 450M of Whatsapp monthly active users.)

– Michael

(This article was originally published on Michael’s personal blog – here)

How to win in mobile without making your own OS

The battle for app ecosystems is over – iOS and Android have won. However, this is not the end of the war for mobile users. VisionMobile’s Senior Business Analyst Stijn Schuermans and Strategy Director Michael Vakulenko discuss how leading ecosystem players like Amazon and Facebook are competing for users without building operating systems.


The mobile industry is buzzing with new mobile operating system initiatives. Microsoft is betting big on Windows Phone. Intel and Samsung are cooperating on Tizen. Telefonica and Mozilla are leading the Firefox OS effort. The Jolla team (ex-Meego) is touting Sailfish OS. Ubuntu is extending its popular Linux distribution from desktop to mobile. Hundreds of crazy-smart engineers around the world are losing sleep as we speak to create the next big OS.

As it happens, operating system technology no longer matters that much in mobile.
Continue reading How to win in mobile without making your own OS

Back to the Future: How Facebook is challenging Google at the eyeball game

[Facebook is competing for eyeballs on Google’s own turf: Android. Guest author Francisco Kattan explains why Facebook’s Home strategy takes us back to the days of the 2005 home screen turf war and how Google, Yahoo and Samsung are impacted]


By now most of you have heard of Facebook Home. Some of you might have even tried it. If you have been hiding under a rock for the past month, there is a good summary here:

Facebook Home “replaces your standard Android’s homescreen with an immersive Facebook experience featuring full-screen photos, status updates, and notifications. Facebook also announced that a special version of Home will come pre-installed on the new HTC First phone on AT&T.” Continue reading Back to the Future: How Facebook is challenging Google at the eyeball game

The Art of One-line Pitching: A Study of AngelList

[An AngelList study about the top companies being referenced by startups in their one-line pitching. VisionMobile Sales Operation Manager, Chris Eleftheriadis, shares his insights on how nowadays startups communicate their value proposition to investors]

The Art of One-line Pitching: A Study of AngelList

Startups are abundant today – addressing every imaginable user need, and often in unconventional ways. Many of today’s startups, from e-commerce to healthcare, are combining many “business patterns” – social, mobile, media, marketplaces, gamification, reputation systems, and many more. And there lies the challenge: how do you communicate your startup’s value proposition in a one-line elevator pitch? Very often your elevator pitch will determine if you can get a meeting with an investor, or the number of positives from a partner onboarding campaign. This challenge of crafting a short, memorable, meaningful one-line elevator pitch has led startups to use more creative techniques such as referring or comparing to established startup success stories. Call it LinkedIn for X, AirBnB for Y, eBay for Z. Continue reading The Art of One-line Pitching: A Study of AngelList

Bringing the 'social' out of the operator walled gardens

[Mobile services have long been a carefully guarded commodity, kept within the ‘walled gardens’ of network operators. But as innovation moves to the software and social era, operators need to adapt. Guest author Avner Mor discusses how networks are inherently social and why they should open their walled gardens to developers]

Bringing the 'social' out of the operator walled gardens

A ‘walled garden’ is the term aptly applied to the last decade of mobile operator services. And Facebook is the generic name aptly applied to the social network revolution of our times.

Wikipedia defines ‘walled gardens’ as referring “to a carrier’s or service provider’s control over applications, content, and media on platforms … and restriction of convenient access to non-approved applications or content”. This has been the common sense approach to operator strategies; build high walls to protect your revenues – which by now we know is becoming irrelevant. Mobile operators are facing market saturation, declining ARPU, higher subscriber acquisition costs (see iPhone), fierce regional competition and viable threats of being replaced by the over-the-top players. In 2009 alone, global operator ARPU fell by 7.3% year-on-year and is forecasted to further decline around 10% y-o-y  according to Strategy Analytics. How come operators – having a ‘social’ network at their very core – have been steadily declining, whereas Facebook has risen to a 600 million user, $35B valuation business in just 7 years? Let’s take a step back.

[poll id=”9″]

2010 will probably be known as the year where mobile service innovation has moved squarely to the software domain. Think about the 100,000s of applications against the 10s of operator services launched in the last 2 years.

To compete in this software world, operators/carriers need to leverage their network capabilities to compete with the over-the-top players. For example, think of a voice application that automatically switches to taking a text or voicemail if it knows the other user is busy. Or a service provider in the travel business that can target their Java app and SMS campaign to users who travel abroad frequently. Or web pages that feature a 1-click-buy based on keying in your mobile phone number. Or a “where are my friends” service, where you opt-in to a friends location request no matter what phone you ‘re using. Or travel recommendations where a virtual concierge suggests places to visit in your holiday based on where your friends have been.

Such innovation has shunned the mobile world because network operators have adopted the walled garden business model of building a supermarket with their own branded goods – rather than a shelf (a platform) for third party goods that leverages on the social aspects of the platform. To compete in a world where innovation is defined in software and social, operators need to become a platform – and compete over the top, not in the network.

A platform business model is about leveraging operators’ underutilised, walled network assets, taking a cut from the delivery of innovative services, in the same way that Apple takes a cut from the delivery of mobile apps or Facebook takes a cut out of ad delivery. It’s not just operators that are playing in this developer game – it’s handset vendors investing in developer programs and app stores, online brands opening their assets to developers (from the BBC to Facebook) and Digital TV operators exploring methods to open STB, EPG and DVR channels to developers. Yet operators are the most ubiquitous and most social players of them all.

Leveraging the social side of the network

Networks hold lucrative assets within their walls including voice, messaging, location, presence, user authentication, billing – plus social graph, user profile and preferences. Take location for example; despite wide penetration of GPS receivers in handsets, network-based location covers any device, works indoors, and is particularly suited to emerging markets.

More importantly, mobile networks hole a treasure trove of information about its users; based a few key information like age bracket, ARPU bracket, address region, roaming characteristics and device model which are provided in an opt-in model, one can deliver better search results, ads or campaign targeting. Think about how restaurant recommendations can automagically cater to your spending habits, taste for international cuisines and social lifestyle – an app that knows you from day one.

There are tons more of examples where network APIs can enable unique applications. Yet, when developers try to connect their app to an operator network they experience barriers and restrictions, such as technology fragmentation, long and expensive technical integration, tedious commercial engagements, long time to payment, plus distribution challenges. What’s worse, developers need to engage and integrate separately with each operator. All of these factors hinder the vast majority of developer innovation and essentially diminish the operator ability to be the center of innovation gravity.

Many infrastructure vendors have jumped into the opportunity to connect operator networks to developers:

– Alcatel Lucent – A dominant SDP provider, extended a hosted ‘OpenAPI’ service for developers, providing Consent Management and  ‘LBS API’

– Ericsson – through their ‘Ericsson Labs’ initiative, the SDP provider offers a broad ‘Maps & Positioning’ API set: web & mobile maps, 3D maps, Cell-id look-up (with its own worldwide cell-id database) , operator based  cell-id and  consent management . Ericsson is currently working with operators in Sweden and Norway.

– Amdocs –  an OSS/BSS leader moving into positioning as an open mobile service providers network to 3rd parties: “service providers have the opportunity to drive new revenues by monetizing their unique assets – networks, customer information, charging, billing and customer care…”

– Huawei – An emerging market player builds its position by partnering America Movil and Telefonica in LATAM. Telefonica has completed in 2009 the deployment of Huawei’s openness platform across 13 Latin American countries

Social cloud APIs

Yet such efforts are limited to single-operator deployments. In addition, they have limited developer outreach potential as many these infrastructure vendors stem from the network, not the software world.

The logical next step is a single, cloud-based network API platform across multiple operators, spanning not just regions and multiple screens, but the entire application lifecycle: develop – deploy – discover – monetize. This network API cloud paradigm is essentially a 4-sided platform connecting users (who discover and consume services), developers (who innovate and create services), the applications themselves and the developer program partners (with the tools and technology, go-to-market, support and community assets). Naturally, a multi-operator paradigm needs to support variable access policies for operator assets, including access to network assets, charging subscribers and accessing user info.

Such a developer-friendly cross-operator pilot program was announced recently in the form of WAC, the Wholesale Applications Community, a joint effort to create a standards based apps platform that operators can leverage to build their storefronts. Network API’s are also part of WAC, based on OneAPI, a Commercial pilot project aiming to establish a unified, developer-friendly API environment across operators. Aepona is the technology provider for the GSM Association’s “OneAPI” initiative.

So is WAC the answer? Operator alliances are essential to achieve this goal. Yet, historically we have seen internal complexity and operator competing agendas hinder effectiveness of these pilots. The missing piece is an infrastructure player that understands software innovation, developer programs and running telco-grade cloud infrastructure. A Facebook-like (software) player that can bring the Facebook out of the operator walled garden.

– Avner

[This article is dedicated with appreciation to the Telecom team at Microsoft Israel R&D center
Avner Mor has over 25 years of experience in senior management positions with leading Israeli hi-tech telecom companies and start-ups. In his last role, Mor served as the General Manager of Telecom Products at the Microsoft Israel R&D center.]