Bye bye, WAC: So much for carriers standardizing apps

What happens when you get four-dozen carriers in a single room? Apparently nothing. The organization tasked with creating common carrier APIs, the Wholesale Application Community, revealed on Tuesday it is dissolving, selling off its technology to Apigee and folding its development efforts into the GSM Association.
The WAC seemed like a good idea when it was founded in 2010. Carriers being were cut out of the exploding application market by smartphone makers, and instead of just playing cutthroat defense and start blocking apps, carriers came up with the idea to actual offer developers something of value — their network APIs — to entice them into their app portals and into revenue sharing deals.
The WAC intended to create a run-time environment, which could support HTML5-based apps that could run on any phone from the most sophisticated Android(s goog) device to the lowliest feature phone. Those apps would then tap into carriers’ location, presence and billing APIs, making them significantly more useful especially on feature phone platforms. The carriers were promising something unheard of the mobile industry: build an app once and have work anywhere and on everything.
Well, that was a pipe dream. WAC’s failure wasn’t just brought on by carriers’ ingrained inability to cooperate with developers. Carriers couldn’t even cooperate with one another. The organization had just gotten off the ground when it dropped this bombshell: While it would create a common set of technology APIs for carriers it would take no steps toward creating a common distribution framework. Sure, a dev could create a WAC app that would work on any operator’s network, but it would have to negotiate individual deals with individual carriers to gain access to its APIs and then work out a revenue sharing model with each.
App StoreImagine if ever iPhone(s aapl) developer wasn’t just required to submit its app to Apple for approval, but also to 200 separate operators. Apple’s smartphone revolution would have gone nowhere. That’s exactly what the carriers were asking for though, and it just shows how they had learned nothing from the demise of their walled garden content stores. WAC was pretty much doomed from the get go, as my colleague Colin Gibbs wrote when the initiative first launched.
Two years and little activity later, carriers seemed to have realized their initial mistake. In February, a group of nine carriers including AT&T(s t), Telefonica(s tef) and Deutsche Telekom implemented WAC’s first common payments API. In addition to standardizing their interfaces, those nine pushed out a common distribution and billing platform so a developer could submit a single app to a group of carriers in one go.
That step came a bit too late, though, as enthusiasm for the WAC had dwindled. Those nine operators were only a handful of the community’s initial 48 members, and a fraction of the total global carrier base. Why would a U.S. developer build a WAC-based app, knowing it would work on AT&T, but not on Verizon Wireless(s vz)(s vod) or Sprint(s s) to say anything of Vodafone’s(s vod) networks around the world?
So what remains? The GSMA may try to pick up the pieces of the initiative, but I doubt it will have much luck. Apigee is a smart company that has done wonders in helping carriers like AT&T simplify their byzantine and proprietary APIs, but for Apigee to become the common link between carriers and developers, then more than a handful of the latter will need to work with the company. The GSMA has agreed to act as go-between among its carrier members and Apigee, but its members may have their own ideas.
Many of WACs most ardent supporters are now backing Mozilla’s HTML5-based Firefox OS. Verizon, Vodafone, China Mobile(s chl) and Softbank — which collectively have well over a billion subscribers, have been working on their own widget-based app platform for years in a project called the Joint Innovation Lab. When it comes to apps, it’s a fragmented, fragmented world, and carriers seem to like it that way.
Feature image courtesy of Shutterstock user Rebelf