Mobile Apps Stores: Billing Systems May Determine Success

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by: Ron Shuttleworth

Earlier this week Research in Motion (RIMM) launched its proprietary mobile applications store, branded App World, presumably as a direct competitive response to the success of Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) iPhone application store. RIM enters an emerging ecosystem that is both chaotic and complex and already worth approximately US$60 billion worldwide according to IDC projections.

By the end of this year, Nokia (NYSE:NOK), Google (NASDAQ:GOOG), and Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) are all expected to launch mobile app stores. Some estimate that by 2013, the market size could more than quadruple from where it is now. Today, even with the introduction of iPhone applications, 99% of downloads are still games, ringtones, and music. More interestingly, only about 20% of subscribers have ever downloaded content or applications, although market research suggests that intentions are strong towards downloadable apps. Clearly, there is huge potential, but there are a lot of intricate dynamics at play as the market emerges.

Mobile application storefronts tend to fall into 3 primary categories.

The most entrenched retailing group continues to be the carriers (or operators in Europe), that have, for several years, been involved in ringtone, games, music, video and, more recently, application downloading . In North America, there are a handful of carriers, while in Europe there are between 40 and 50 operators plus dozens more MVNOs (mobile virtual network operators) that have helped to pioneer the market. Downloads are considered a core business for most carriers.

Soon after the market began, another group of vendors emerged, which are often called "off-portal" retailers. These Companies have similar offerings as the carriers, but with independent storefronts and provisioning systems, albiet hooked directly into the carriers' billing systems. Typically, off-portal retailers such as Jamster, Playphone, Zed, and dozens of others like them generate high margin revenue for the carriers through revenue-sharing models and they are tolerated, if not embraced, by the carriers.

More recently, beginning with the iPhone application store in 2008, leading smartphone and mobile OS manufacturers have begun to launch applications storefronts. Both Apple and RIM operate completely independent of the carriers, including billing, while Microsoft has chosen to integrate with carrier billing systems. All three vendors plus Nokia (which recently acquired the Symbian OS) and Google are attempting to foster active developer communities. Famously, the iPhone store already boasts over 30,000 independently created applications offered through its storefront. The Symbian OS had nearly 10,000 applications developed on it as of Q2 2008.

Who will be the ultimate winners and losers as the market takes off? In the end, the common denominator for success may not be at the customer interface, and there are likely few new killer apps that could drive traffic. If the storefront is not important, and the applications are neutral, what is the potential silver bullet for success?

Billing systems may determine winners and losers.

Experienced marketers agree that it is easier and more profitable to sell new services to current customers than it is to attract new customers. Carriers have a long billing history with millions of subscribers, and experience in exploiting the data channel. Content and application downloads are a simple extension of current carrier subscriber billing. A game, song or ringtone is simply added to a subscriber's monthly or prepaid bill with minimal effort by the consumer. More interestingly, carriers are masters at service bundling. As the market evolves, carriers are in a favourable position to offer service bundles for consumers that include mobile applications with household services packages. Such bundling may be difficult to counter by independent application stores.

Notwithstanding the recent entry by handset manufacturers and the future entry by OS vendors, the vast majority of the $60 billion in annual revenue to date has been realized by carriers. Mobile content and applications are core revenue stream that will grow in importance to carriers as voice becomes increasingly commoditized. Once the euphoria of the current development rush is over, and developers actually want to make money, applications will need to reside and operate equally on all enabled devices and networks. At some point in the future, as the market matures, the easiest way for consumers to discover, buy, and use the most popular and widest selection of applications may still be via carriers and their off-portal partners.

Over the next few years, major carriers are likely to accelerate investment in appropriate infrastructure to exploit their billing advantage in an effort to maintain or grow share of the application market. Third party infrastructure players such as Denmark's End2End, Canada's Wmode, Italy's Bournjourno [BNG.MI], and Seattle's struggling Motricity (which merged with InfoSpace (INSP) last year) may benefit from an upsurge in carrier, off-portal and MVNO investment.

Many could predict that off-portal retailers, especially ones that rely on the the fading ringtone market, may be at the beginning of an extinction cycle. This may be true with one goliath exception...Microsoft. Microsoft has been lost in the background to the iPhone / Blackberry hype. However, it is currently forming relationships and is building out infrastructure to become a primary off-portal partner to most carriers in North America, Europe and Asia.

Although Microsoft may give up some margin to its carrier partners in return for easy billing, carrier alignment may help to accelerate Microsoft's land grab of the apps market. This marketing approach is in Microsoft's DNA and is a variant of earlier channel marketing that helped to drive MS-Dos and Windows success. Microsoft has proven to be a master product bundler, which should align well with carrier bundling.

Despite its exclusive deal with AT&T (NYSE:T), and its "walled-in" billing system, the App Store from Apple should maintain the momentum of its early success. It owes much of its future to the past. Without the success of the iPod and the iTunes media sales platform before it, the App Store would be challenged as an independent app retailer. As it stands now, the App Store is a simple extension of one of the largest billing account bases around...iTunes. Apple and the carriers are utilizing similar product line extension strategies.

With RIM's launch of App World, it introduced a completely new account base which is fundamentally unaligned with carriers or with media. Paypal requires a new account commitment by mobile subscribers, which may be a barrier to uptake. With no "killer app" such as iTunes, consumers may find it too much trouble to download the App Store and set up a new billing account (if it does not overlap with a current paypal account).

Are eBay (NASDAQ:EBAY) buyers / sellers likely to download Blackberry apps? How much alignment is there between Paypal account holders, Blackberry users, and a desire to download an application? Whatever the number is at that intersection, the potential account base is probably a small fraction of any of the major U.S. carriers, or of the Apple iTunes account base.

During its launch year, RIM may find difficulty in gaining market traction. It is a smart company, and it is possible that the Management could find a way to integrate into the carrier billing systems at some future date in a similar way as Microsoft is preparing. However, based on conversations with industry insiders, there has been some resistance by RIM to integrate with carrier billing systems.

Within a broader strategic framework, RIM may simply be biding its time until an effective mobile payment system begins to proliferate, which could remove the need for intermediaries such as Paypal, and change the future dynamics of the entire market once again.

There is speculation that Google Android may come to market with Google Checkout as its billing backbone. The size of the Google Checkout account base does not register among the largest account bases among research sources at this point. If the speculation is true, there would need to be some heavy lifting on the billing side if Google were to compete head-to-head with the carriers.

Billing Systems for the Mobile App market ranked by scale.

  1. Cingular: 82 million mobile accounts
  2. Verizon (NYSE:VZ): 78 million mobile accounts
  3. AT&T: 75 million mobile accounts
  4. Paypal: 70 million payment accounts (active)
  5. iTunes: 65 million media accounts (active)
  6. Sprint (NYSE:S): 40 million mobile accounts

Sources: IE Market Research, Piper Jaffray, Wikipedia,

Based on the data above, although Microsoft would give up margin through carrier billing agreements, it could have nearly 5 times the reach as Apple would with iTunes in the United States alone. However, Apple is likely pleased with the scale of its iTunes account base because branding strength and focus should generate more revenue and margin per account than any other competitor. It does not need as much scale to be really successful. By introducing a non-aligned payment system into the mix, albeit a large one in the form of Paypal, RIM may be limiting its initial scaling capability.

Although it is likely that the Company will adjust tactics as it gains more experience. A go-it-alone billing strategy may impede Google's future launch because Checkout does not appear to have the acceptance and scale of other billing systems. It is more likely that Nokia would follow Microsoft and align with carriers, especially since there are so many players in the European market where it is strongest.

The carriers and MVNOs will defend what they already consider to be a core business. Investment in infrastructure and marketing should increase. In the end, those entities with the largest and most advanced billing systems should prevail, which may suggest that the carriers could end up being major players in the space despite the hype surrounding the market entry by handset manufacturers. The ongoing decoupling of applications from hardware may also help to strengthen the future position of carriers and OS vendors like Microsoft and Nokia.

The mobile applications market is not well-formed yet, and there is a potential for some really interesting developments over the next 6 quarters as the mobile apps market goes through an adoption phase.

Disclosure: No position