When will carriers learn…they suck at App Stores/software?

Tuesday, July 14, 2009 6:34

On device app stores while still all the rage are now coming off of their peak. Last summer with the arrival of the Apple App Store, several manufacturers and companies including RIM, Google, and Nokia just to name a few announced plans for their very own app stores. Carriers, the gatekeeper of the data pipe naturally want in on this extremely lucrative market. There’s only one problem, the innovation and features that keep customers happy and constantly purchasing never came from “the network” (carrier branded stores). Look at the small app centers that carriers have run for the last decade, from AT&T to Verizon to T-Mobile. You could access these pathetic excuses of WAP shopping goodness from practically any phone…but who actually did? I know I didn’t. The app selection was abysmal at the absolute best and apps and services were often overpriced. That isn’t exactly the best combination if you ask me. So, now that the App Store hoopla is starting to die down, who is trying to break in and steal the spotlight multiple months late?

The latest to join the masses in the increasingly crowded app store market is America’s love-it-or-hate-it carrier, Verizon Wireless, Big Red, Big V, the almighty Satan, call it what you want. They apparently think they have something to offer that the half dozen or more other manufacturers and companies taking a stab at this whole app store thing haven’t been able to offer yet. After living through the hell that was pre-Apple App Store “mobile marketplaces”, I can say that I was hoping I’d never have to deal with another carrier branded store again. As stated before, selection of the past was poor, quality was equally poor, yet somehow the price reflected something that was of pristine quality.

With such advanced platforms as Apple’s mobile OS X, Android, BB OS, Palm’s webOS and even Symbian, and at least a couple having astonishing success quickly turning developers into Mr. and Mrs Moneybags as they develop some of the most visually appealing, creative, and useful apps yet, why would any developer want to go backwards and develop for older software/hardware and “dumb phones” where a “good game” classifies something such as a souped up game of pong with 5 levels instead of 4? That is essentially what carrier branded stores are. In the age of the stand alone app store run by a third party, carrier branded stores are dead. Now, Verizon could prove me wrong and deliver an amazing app store experience, though I doubt that based on past ventures. Carriers simply lack the innovation and knowledge of the market. You can feel free to argue with me but just consider this: If they did know what they were doing in regards to mobile app stores, mobile applications, how to market/sell them, and how to keep customers coming back for more, why couldn’t they have started 5-8 years ago and get a demanding lead on Apple, Android, BB, Palm, or Nokia?

Besides lackluster applications, other things that I remember dominating the miniature mobile marketplaces of years past were wallpapers, ringtones, and themes. Again, the aftermarket has come in and made up for the extreme lack of innovation and quality in the carrier enabled market again. Look at wallpapers. Anyone with a smartphone and higher end “feature phone” can go online and simply save any picture they want for free to use as their own wallpaper. With memory card support in phones, people can also transfer over photos from a computer further expanding their options. Who in their right mind would now pay $1-$5 for 240 x 320 wallpapers? It worked 5 years ago…but it won’t fly anymore.

Ringtones anyone? There are so many 3rd party ringtone applications out there that allow you to make ringtones out of anything. While you have to foot the initial $10-$30 for the software, if you’re one who likes change or simply likes music, making your own ringtones is the best move. It is cheaper in the long run and you will have much greater selection as ringtone stores provided by carriers always left me wanting more.

Themes are another area where mobile marketplaces used to cater to. Because the BlackBerry theming community is rather large and going through a current explosion of creativity and popularity, I’ll look at them. Using Plazmic’s themebuilder, you can turn your BlackBerry device into whatever you want. Heck, you can download/make themes to look just like other smartphones if that is your thing. The possibilities are endless. Just spend a few minutes looking around BlackBerry theme sites such as Hedone Design and Elecite. The theme makers at these two sites are some of the more talented people, creating some of the most unique and visually appealing themes I’ve ever seen. Now look back to the junk that was located on carrier branded stores.

Now some may call out the vast difference in tools available between theme makers a few years ago and now. While this argument has some merit, it doesn’t really hold much water. Why? Look at RIM themselves. For the longest time and still you can use your BlackBerry browser to go to the BlackBerry homepage on your Berry and download games, wallpapers, applications and themes straight from RIM. The themes pushed out by RIM while once at the forefront of BlackBerry Theming are now grossly dated in design, appearance, and functionality. While RIM isn’t a wireless carrier, they have realized that the aftermarket has clearly and easily beaten them it seems as it has been months since they pushed out any new themes.

All of these products: themes, wallpapers, and apps, that were once solely provided to wireless users by in-house app stores have since been replaced by more sophisticated offerings that bring so much more to the table. Moving past the actual products and services, think about the developers. With the top three app stores currently in the media, Apple’s App Store, Google’s Android Marketplace, and BlackBerry’s App World, developers are making more money, faster than ever before. With the audience base growing daily to levels never before seen on carrier branded offerings, why would they want to move back to their old home of mediocrity, taking a pay? Better but still not very ideal, developers could develop apps for both 3rd party app stores and carrier branded stores. Buy why? Why waste the time developing for the less appealing when you could be developing and designing the next big app?

With innovation seeping out with app after app and users distancing themselves and spending less and less on carrier branded products, why can’t carriers just let go and accept defeat? While I understand that determination and fighting for what you want are good business practices, carriers, and Verizon in their latest venture just need to through in the towel. They’re not going to take anyone’s market share. They’re not going to become the wide success that Apple, Google, and BB are enjoying. So why bother?

What’s your take? Is Verizon spinning their wheels as more and more people defect to smarter phones with much smarter and better equipped app stores? Or is there still a market for lower quality apps and services?

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