Sprint to kick off mobile Web app initiative

Sprint Nextel may offer developers information about subscribers' location and browsing behavior -- with an opt-in agreement -- so they can make mobile Web-based applications more relevant and useful to those users.

The move may be part of an initiative at Sprint to help developers more easily build mobile apps that can run on multiple OSes. The carrier will use the Integra back-end software platform from Openwave to create what it calls a Browser-VAS (Value-Added Service) Ecosystem. With it, Sprint aims to create a thriving set of mobile apps that run in a browser instead of as downloaded software residing on a handset. The plan will be announced Tuesday at the Sprint Open Developer Conference in Santa Clara, California, where the system will be demonstrated.

How subscribers will find those apps is still being worked out, said Kevin McGinnis, director of product development at Sprint. Among the possibilities, websites might direct users to an available Web app or a phone-based app might tell them a companion tool based on the Web, he said. In addition, there might be a browser toolbar that users could tap into to see a selection of apps.

"It's just another way to put your service or your enhanced capability in front of a user where they would want it," McGinnis said.

The mobile app world has been dominated by OS creators, especially Apple and Google, and some carriers have rallied around Web-based apps as a way around the fragmentation between those OSes. That strategy may also be designed to level the playing field. In February, 24 major carriers, including Sprint, joined in announcing the Wholesale Applications Community (WAC) to create a common development standard independent of phone type and OS.

Sprint supports the overall objectives of WAC and continues to watch what the group is doing but is not an active member, McGinnis said. The Browser-VAS Ecosystem is one of a variety of approaches to providing mobile applications that includes device-resident apps and app stores, he said.

As a carrier, Sprint could offer more useful information than has been available to Google Android and Apple iOS developers, according to Dan Nguyen, vice president of product management at Openwave. Because it already has a billing system and relationships with subscribers, Sprint could also offer app developers a method of charging for their products, he said. The partnership between the two companies is not exclusive, so other operators could use Integra to do the same thing, Nguyen said.

The plan's success will depend in part on consistency among mobile browsers, which would simplify development for multiple platforms. To reach this consistency, Openwave has targeted Webkit, the foundation for mobile browsers including those of the iPhone, Android devices and the BlackBerry 6 OS.

The Browser-VAS Ecosystem will first work with the Android browser and then the BlackBerry, later adding other platforms, said Anand Chandrasekaran, director of product management at Openwave. Sprint and Openwave are already working on the initiative with selected developers and plan to open it up generally in the first half of next year, according to Openwave. The first available application created with the Browser-VAS Ecosystem will be one that lets subscribers click on a Sprint icon in the browser toolbar. That icon will bring them to a page with options such as checking usage and managing an account.

Sprint is looking at providing data on user activity across both device-resident and Web-based applications, according to McGinnis. It could offer both general statistics about the subscribers that use an app and data on a particular user, he said. The individual subscriber data would only be used if the customer gave explicit consent, and personally identifiable information would be removed, he said.

But that data could give developers the resources to make their Web applications more relevant than those in the established app stores, according to Openwave's Nguyen. The information could include location, Web browsing history and other data. With data about where a particular subscriber has gone on the mobile Web, carriers could use Integra to place that subscriber in a particular demographic segment, Nguyen said. Knowing that demographic segment would help the application provider offer more targeted content or advertising.

"To the extent that users have the ability to control the way their information is used ... we think the user should have the ability to enhance their experience based on what they're doing," McGinnis said. "I like to call it 'advertising as a service.'"

Carriers tend to be very protective of data about their subscribers, even when it is separated from personally identifiable information, said Forrester Research analyst Charles Golvin. It can include facts far beyond what an app company might gather from its own customers.

"That's definitely a significant benefit they would be delivering to those developers," Golvin said.

The biggest challenge in making such an initiative work for both carrier and developer is likely to be the app shopping interface, he said.

"In the world of hundreds of thousands of apps, how do you do a really good job of intuiting what people want and giving them a relatively focused selection?" Golvin said.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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