Smartphone Apps For The Rest Of Us

Even if you use Sprint, T-Mobile, Verizon -- or don't have an iPhone for your AT&T connection -- you can still get games, music, location-based services, and other mobile content on your phone. Here's how.



Sure, iPhone users have access to the iPhone Apps Store, but where are the rest of us supposed to get great content for our cell phones? Turns out, all over the place.

Long before the iPhone Apps Store was a gleam in Steve Jobs' eye, each major wireless network operator offered up numerous third-party applications to their customers through a variety of storefronts.

The carriers have their own developer programs, application testing procedures, and delivery systems to get apps into the hands of users. InformationWeek took the time to speak to the carriers and get the scoop on how you can find games, music, and location-based services applications for your phone.

AT&T

"We think the Apps store is great for iPhone users and everyone else," said Emily Soelberg, director of applications with AT&T Mobility. "One of the big challenges is that people don't know that their phones can download apps. So the visibility of the iPhone store has been great for us. We've had an apps store for several years that supports over 100 phones, and we have thousands of content titles. It is really exciting to see a big brand like Apple create awareness in the market for things you can do with your phone."

AT&T customers can download ringtones, games, graphics, music, applications, and other content through the AT&T MEdia Mall (available on the handset through the MEdia Net portal and online at www.mediamall.wireless.att.com). Additionally, AT&T indexes thousands of applications for availability through the MEdia Net search function. Its customers are able to download virtually any application to their handset without restriction.

Unlike the iPhone Apps Store, which requires an iTunes account that is tethered to a credit card, most applications available through AT&T's MEdiaNet portal are billed directly to your wireless account. This is important because most kids can't use a credit card, but they can be authorized to charge things to a wireless account (with Mom and Dad's consent, of course). In order to ward off sticker shock, "We have a clear process to inform customers as to what they are buying through Media Mall," said Soelberg. "We warn people about their phone bills if high usage apps are downloaded."

AT&T sees social networking as the up-and-coming big category for applications. It has made an effort to seek out developers and applications that it believes will be valuable to its customers.

It also sees a big rise looming in the location-based services space. "More and more phones have GPS," said Soelberg. "Introducing networking capabilities and LBS-based applications will be a big growth area for AT&T." Soelberg noted that AT&T is actively evaluating companies that offer LBS applications and is trying to get those applications to market quickly.

AT&T’s overall approach is to let customers choose from dozens of devices and thousands of applications so they get the most use from their phones, and to give developers the tools they need to create and market their own applications.

"I think apps on phones are going to see a lot of growth over the next few years,” said Soelberg. “Phones are becoming mini PCs. You can access all this information, and it drives a lot value for people.”

Sprint

Sprint delivers content to its users through its Power Vision services and online portal.

"When you talk about apps, games, content, and media, there is a tremendous capability at Sprint," said John Schuler, director of product platforms. "We deliver hundreds of thousands of downloads every day. When it comes to on-deck stuff, we build the robust landing portal for WAP pages where customers can get the latest things that they are specifically interested in. It is an incredibly stable, scalable, and accurate system that we've built in the past five years."

On most Sprint feature phones, there is an item in the main menu called "Get Stuff." This takes you to Sprint's main content catalog. This is where users can find games, ringers, screen savers, and other applications such as sports, weather, and entertainment services. Some are free, some require subscriptions, and some require one-time purchasing fees. The selection is wide and varied.

To date, Sprint admits that it has suffered a bit from the same visibility issue mentioned by AT&T. Schuler said, "Sprint is continuously educating its customer base, marketing, and handset partners to make sure everyone knows they can get content and where they can find it."

One of the things that Sprint does through a marketing perspective is to have a very thorough and robust featuring program and a plan related to showing off specific apps or destinations on its deck. These can be tied to relevant events, such as NFL games or NASCAR races, for example. "When you go into the handsets, we use that featuring capability to drive activity," said Scott Lane, director of business applications and business development at Sprint. "We're making greater investments to drive more content to users."

Sprint said the goal is not to sell applications, but to deliver content that is most relevant to its customers.

It also has a robust developer support strategy. "There are a whole number of business apps that are available to download, and we provide the open platform to provide that framework, and that open Internet model," said Lane. "We certify applications for smartphones such as BlackBerrys and Windows Mobile devices, meaning the apps will work on that hardware and it is set up specifically for working on the Sprint network. We try to certify as many apps as we can."

T-Mobile

If you're a T-Mobile subscriber, T-Zones is where you'll find messaging, music, wallpaper, games, Web-based apps, information, and more. It is a WAP-browser-based storefront that lets you download stuff to your phone.

T-Mobile suggests that customers, "Stay on top of it all by downloading helpful applications such as weather reports, mapping tools, restaurant guides, sports information, and more.”

Earlier this month, T-Mobile alluded to the fact that it was developing its own version of an iPhone Apps Store. Citing informed sources, MocoNews.net reported, "Developers will submit their applications online; the revenue-share agreement will be based on how much the application uses the network; and the applications will be presented to the user in order of popularity, not according to T-Mobile's preferences. It's all pretty straightforward, but the more interesting aspect is that this will apply to all the carrier's platforms from upcoming Android to Java to Sidekick and Windows Mobile."

When I asked about it, T-Mobile would only comment, "T-Mobile is working with the industry to foster an open wireless services platform which will provide developers with the tools and information they need to make new, innovative experiences available to T-Mobile’s more than 31.5 million customers. The devPartner Community site, which is in its alpha stage, is just a taste of what T-Mobile has in store and we encourage you to stay tuned for more details in the coming weeks."

Whatever it is that T-Mobile is working on, it sounds pretty big and pretty exciting. Unfortunately it isn't quite fully cooked yet, or we'd be able to share more details with you. You can be assured, however, when it launches we'll be talking all about it.

In the meantime, T-Mobile users have T-Zones and the thousands of applications that are there.

Verizon

Verizon's Get It Now content storefront has been around for years. Many of Verizon's feature phones run the BREW platform, and Verizon, Qualcomm, and their many developer partners have forged a veritable goldmine of downloadable applications and services. The Get It Now store is accessed through Verizon's menu system on most phones. In it you'll find ringtones, music, games, wallpapers, video clips, mobile TV, and more.

The Verizon Wireless Web site has a neat tool that lets you pick a phone based on the activities you want to use it for. For example, if you want to watch mobile TV, you select that as an option and it will show you which phones support that service. Same goes for things such as music downloads, turn-by-turn directions, and locating your kids.

"We've been in the downloadable app market for some time now," said Ryan Hughes, VP of multimedia content for Verizon Wireless. "With upwards of 70 million subscribers, you end up having a huge slice of the general population as your targeted customer base. That's a large target to hit. We don't have the biggest store or offer the most applications, but we're bringing the products and services to market that matter most to our customers."

Hughes noted that Verizon has learned a lot about how to effectively deliver applications ever since its Get It Now store debuted more than five years ago. It evaluates each mobile platform in the market and makes sure that the most appropriate content is always available to those platforms. It also believes in a uniform experience. This means if you switch from an LG phone to a Samsung phone, you will have the same experience on the phone when it comes to finding and downloading content.

Verizon's Get It Now deck is one avenue. The company is also in the middle of opening up its devices and network for off-deck applications. But it's not as open as you might think.

"Currently in the off-deck environment, we only distribute text messaging campaigns, downloadable wallpapers, and ringtones," said Hughes. "We don't allow uncertified apps though. The issue there, quite frankly, is that our customers expect quality from us. We can't just raise our hand and say, 'That's not our fault.' We certify that content works, not because we are control freaks and want to police what our customers can get, but because we're all about providing a good experience. That requires a hands-on look at applications before certifying them."

Other Carriers

The Big Boys aren't the only ones offering content. Smaller, regional carriers and even mobile virtual network operators are all in on the content game. No one is without a strategy.

Whether you subscribe to Cricket, Virgin, Helio, Alltel, U.S. Cellular, Southern Linc, TracFone, or MetroPCS, you can find and download content to your mobile phone.

So what are you waiting for? Great content is right on your phone!

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