Mobile phone apps able to work on all OSs instead of just one, the potential for Android to become a major OS and the promotion of ways to save energy were all major areas of focus at the Mobile Asia Congress organized by the GSM Association (GSMA) last week in Hong Kong.
Mobile apps are growing in popularity, due in part to Apple's success with the iPhone and the billions of apps already downloaded by users of the popular smartphone.
But while iPhone users number in the tens of millions, the GSMA hopes the potential to sell apps to 4 billion devices that use mobile phone networks around the world, and in particular the 1 billion people expected to subscribe to mobile broadband by 2012, will draw developers to a much wider market.
"The world of applications is just taking off," said Rob Conway, CEO of the GSM Association, during a speech at the congress. "Apps are going to explode in number and importance."
The trouble some GSMA members, particularly the mobile network operators, see is the inability of users to take their apps with them when they buy a new smartphone from a different vendor. Most app stores today focus only on one operating system, something mobile subscribers don't like, according to executives at the congress.
"In the world of applications we're missing what made mobile so successful, a common format," said Michael O'Hara, chief marketing officer of the GSM Association. He said people should be able to move their apps from one device to another, regardless of whether the operating system is different.
One way to make apps transferable to different devices would be to build an SDK (software developer's kit) for middleware for the global mobile network that will allow apps to be used on all devices, not just one, he said.
Dan Warren, director of technology at the GSMA, clarified in an interview that the proposed SDK is just an idea right now and that no concrete plans have been laid out.
Meantime, Mobile phone network operators are pursuing the creation of their own software standards and app stores as another way to play a larger role in apps. Their push to create standards stands out because GSMA's Mobile World Congress in Barcelona last February promoted apps from the perspective of software and device makers, such as Microsoft and Nokia.
The Mobile Asia Congress focused on network operators and their app plans, with an app conference, AppsXchange Asia, running at the same time as the congress, which focused on how to set up and operate an app store.
"Carriers have the strength of knowing our customers," said Ryuji Yamada, president and CEO of NTT DoCoMo, at the congress.
The Joint Innovation Lab (JIL), a joint venture established by China Mobile, Vodafone, Verizon Wireless and Softbank Mobile to develop software and services for their 1.1 billion mobile phone customers, is already hard at work on app and other software standards so their customers can use apps on a variety of devices offered by the carriers.
The group has set out software standards for widgets used on handsets and is working on a single platform for mobile apps, according to Masayoshi Son, chairman and CEO of Japan's Softbank, speaking at the congress.
Several major handset vendors have already agreed to support JIL initiatives in their mobile phones starting from the first quarter of next year, including LG Electronics, Research In Motion, Samsung Electronics and Sharp.
Another operator alliance has turned to Google's Android mobile OS.
The Conexus Mobile Alliance, which includes 240 million subscribers from companies such as NTT DoCoMo of Japan, KT Corporation of South Korea, Indosat Tbk of Indonesia and Far EasTone Telecommunications of Taiwan, last week announced the 13 finalists for an Android app development contest launched in June.
The group said the Application Development Campaign for Android was one of many initiatives the alliance has taken to promote the creation of more Android apps and encourage more developers to work with Android.
GSMA's Conway called Google particularly noteworthy because, unlike Apple, Google will license Android to anyone. He also said Google's Internet services, including turn-by-turn navigation services, make it a force in the mobile world.
Other companies with proprietary software are a frustration for users, he said, because their devices limit their choice of applications.
China Mobile, the world's largest mobile network operator, has already used Android as a model for its own operating system, the Open Mobile System (OMS) and is branding phones that use it Ophones. The company launched its own app store in August, the Mobile Market.
"We will play the key role in the value chain," said Wang Jianzhou, chairman and CEO of China Mobile, speaking at the congress.
China Mobile had 513.5 million subscribers at the end of October.
GSMA said next February apps will play a large part in Mobile World Congress 2010, where it will concurrently hold a conference for apps called App Planet.
The GSMA also explored ways to reduce energy consumption among operators and subscribers at the Mobile Asia Congress.
The group has been working on initiatives to create mobile phone plugs that stop using electricity once a handset has been fully recharged, because many users leave them plugged in, as well as working to create more efficient base stations as well as base stations able to run on natural power sources such as wind and solar.
The use of base stations able to run on natural power sources is an important way to reduce fuel use and the power bill in developing parts of the world such as areas of Africa and Asia because many base stations in remote areas run on diesel fuel and are not connected to a national power grid.
The diesel bill from base stations across the developing world will run to nearly US$15 billion by 2012 without changes to the way they're powered, the GSMA says. The group teamed up with the International Finance Corporation, the private sector arm of the World Bank Group, to work on ways to help mobile operators implement large scale renewable energy networks with the most up to date market research, shared knowledge and technical assistance available.
China Mobile, which runs one of the biggest mobile networks in the world with 500,000 base stations, pledged to reduce its electricity use by 20 percent, or 11.8 billion kilowatt hours of electricity, by 2012 as part of the initiative.
The company has 2,000 solar or wind-powered base stations installed around China, but the future roll out of such devices depends largely on price, the company's CEO said. The base stations are 50 percent more expensive than normal base stations.
Most wind and solar powered base stations cannot fully sustain themselves and rely on some power to operate, according to Kevin Tao, CEO of Huawei Terminal Division. His company has sold 1,500 solar or wind-powered base stations so far.