Apple has taken many well deserved punches for the opacity of the iPhone App Store approval process. However, Apple deserves major credit for finally breaking the suffocating control of the mobile service provider over the set applications that can be installed on a mobile device.
In my three years as an engineering manager at Motorola's Mobile Devices business unit, I was approached dozens of times by energetic mobile application entrepreneurs who all asked the same question:
"How do I get my application onto your phones?"
The only answer available at the time was:
"Talk to the mobile network operators (carriers). You'll need to negotiate the pre-installation of your application with each operator for each device they support. One at a time. It will be impossibly hard and likely to fail, so you should probably give up now."
At the time, I had no useful advice on how they could achieve the widespread distribution their business plan depended on. It was depressing.
I am now convinced that Apple and the iPhone App Store have finally cracked that nut. This article from the NYTimes triggered my change in attitude:
"Still, the App Store is markedly better than the alternative, says Peter Farago, a marketing executive at Flurry, a mobile analytics company in San Francisco. Gone are the days when mobile developers had to negotiate with major telecommunications companies if they had any hopes of publishing their applications on a mobile phone.
“It took six to nine months to build a relationship with a carrier, maybe a quarter-million to get the infrastructure built, and the company took 50 percent or more from each dollar,” Mr. Farago says, a process that limited access to mobile platforms. “Apple has helped create a much healthier middle class of developers and expanded the pie for everyone.”
This is indeed a watershed period for the developer of mobile applications. The break between carrier and application control (AT&T + iPhone) now has the momentum. We already see signs of this spreading from carrier to carrier (Verizon, Sprint) and platform to platform (Android, WebOS, Blackberry).
Finally, a nice dose of free (free as in speech) in the world of mobile devices.