The Difference between Mobile App and Telecom App Developers

Before getting into the main message of this weblog, remember to beware “black and white thinking”.  It’s about focus, not absolutes.  This weblog came about as I realized this subtle but important distinction between mobile and telecom app developers is not broadly appreciated, it gets lost in the collective noun of developers.

Most developers that call themselves mobile app developers have no interest in telecom operators or their networks.  They’re focused on Apple, Android and to a much lesser extent Blackberry, Windows Phone, and Firefox OS.  What drives mobile developers is direct access to a large engaged user base that is willing to pay (time, privacy and most of all cash).  Apple and Android are >1B users and Apple has the edge as its customers are more willing to pay.  The only relevance a Telco has to them is indirect, in providing internet access and in the ‘pay by mobile’ service of some app stores; to which the developer doesn’t even notice as the app store manages that billing option.  Note there is much history in Telcos’ attempts to address developers generally, which I’ll not revisit.

For most mobile app developers Telcos are irrelevant and they prefer to go over the top as its easier and more economical.  Now we must avoid black and white thinking, I’m not advocating foregoing mobile developers, but its going to take some time to regain relevance and there are stepping stones we can take to get there.  I’ll revisit this point at the end of this weblog, but back to the main focus on the difference between mobile and telecom app developers.  Put simply, the term mobile has been taken over by the CE (Consumer Electronics) industry, Telco is simply a pipe for most mobile app developers.

My contention is we need to focus on and nurture telecom application developers, examples of this type of developers are:

  1. Developers (Businesses) building communications platforms and services on open source, for example with Asterisk, Free Switch, and Mobicents.  Call Centers are a $10B a year business and growing as more and more online purchases require call center support.  And there’s many more applications across PBX, IVR, communication enabled business processes, marketing campaigns, embedded real-time comms, authentication, etc.  There are vibrant communities building communication platforms on open source, and generally ignored by the Telecom industry.
  2. Developers (Businesses) looking to run their business on someone else’s communications platforms rather than build and operate it themselves, for example with Tropo and Twilio.  Telecom networks are reliable and secure, communications just works.  For businesses this matters, matters critically, as discussed in the weblog which is also a good example of the transition of developers from group 1 into group 2.
  3. Developers (Businesses) building stuff direct for the telco’s network, for example what OpenCloud, Mobicents, and Tropo all do.  This is about Telco’s breaking free of their slow strategic vendors who have grown fat and happy with the big checks sent through every month and do not want anything to disrupt that situation without their complete control.  Most of the money spent on this category is where the strategic suppliers fail or are simply unable to deliver quickly on integration or service migration issues.  BUT there is much more potential here if we take it seriously as a service innovation center.  A comment made often by Telcos is “creating a platform for innovation with our network.”  That platform for innovation is going to start with this group of telecom app developers given the ease and economic issues most mobile app developers face in using the telco’s network.

For businesses that start in group (1) once they find success they need to move to group (2) quite quickly, as per  However, there’s a lack of advice, guidance and support on what makes sense given the business’s specific situation; an objective of TADS (Telecom Application Developer Summit) is to plug this gap.

Some of the people I meet are quite vocal deniers that such telecom application development is relevant.  Their contention is “the revenues addressable are far too small for operators to bother with, and anyway operators are incompetent at doing anything other than running a network.”  It’s become a belief system, as rational arguments just do not seem to work, they’ve already decided Telco’s fate and it’s that of an ISP.  Their position ignores all the enterprise divisions in telcos that sell, deliver and manage ICT (Information Communications Technology) solutions for enterprises.  Their position assumes the 100s of services operators offer, many of which have global revenues and margins far in excess of most high profile Bay Area companies are simply not significant.  This is utter nonsense, if there’s a business and its communications related: DO IT for your future relevance as a communications service provider, do it!  We’re entering a phase of hard-won business, but its defensible; it’s about local relationships, it’s about people, its where telcos have inherent competitive advantages, as yes the bias is enterprise not consumer, and the services are increasingly going to come from telecom app developers.

As an industry we’re not focused on them, we’re trapped by the ‘bright and shiny’ mobile app developers, who will happily take the tens of thousands of dollars on offer at hackathons, but are going OTT as its simply easier and more economical.  The ONLY industry that is going to cultivate Telecom Application Developers is the Telecom’s industry, and we must recognize their existance.  There are three broad groups as identified above.  We’re trying our best to invite as many as possible to the Telecom Application Developer Summit.  The Summit has the objective to set out a Manifesto on how we can nurture these developers to create a sustainable and profitable telecom application ecosystem.  The impact of this is not going to be tens of billions of dollars next year, but it can grow into that and keep telcos relevant as communications service providers, ICT providers, identity providers and protectors, and deliver services that simply work better and hence retain paying customers.  Let’s get focused on TADS.

Why is it easier and more economical to avoid Telcos for most mobile app developers?

The telecom industry as not made it easy for mobile app developers to add real time comms, which we’ve discussed a length in numerous articles in this weblog.   There are a number of third party services built outside of telco networks charging close to a dollar per hour of service. However, most mobile apps are free and of the paid ones most are priced at a few dollars. Virtually none are charging a couple of dollars subscription per month. And none charge a few dollars a day.  This is the reality of the gap between mainstream mobile app developers and telco economics.

Real time communications remains important, but for mobile app developers it is delivered in the form of inexpensive OTT RTM (Real Time Messaging) and VoIP apps. Decreasingly so in the form of relatively expensive SMS and voice circuits. Real time comms apps are consistently top ranking in the app stores across the World, the need is there.  The human race has been talking for likely over one million years so we’re not going to stop doing it any time soon.  Consumers and businesses demand real time communications more than ever before as we increasingly live and work online.

The evolution of this trend is for mainstream mobile apps to benefit from real time comms as it becomes easier and economical, to which WebRTC will play an important role.  At TADS our stretch objective is to identify how to regain relevance to the mobile app developer segment.  Dean Bubley will be exploring this at TADS in his presentation “Beyond the phone call: How WebRTC Helps Developers fit Communications into Specific Use-Cases.”

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