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VZW's Java app store: Another name for a mobile portal?

The difference between an app store and the application store fronts operators have offered for years may just be a question of marketing

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Verizon Wireless (NYSE:VZ, NYSE:VOD) will soon offer Java Mobile Edition apps as well as BREW content to its customers, Chief Executive Officer Lowell McAdam announced at Sun Microsystems' JavaOne conference this week. While the change in development and distribution strategy marks a big shift for the long-time BREW loyalist, the news that made the biggest splash was McAdam's revelation that those new Java applications would be stocked in VZW's very own app store.

At first blush, Verizon appears to be tapping into the enormous momentum behind Apple's iPhone App Store, which saw 1 billion downloads in less than a year—and there are some similarities: Verizon will target the store initially at smartphones, which can support a larger variety of applications and a feature-rich shopping experience. But by launching something called an ‘app store,' is Verizon offering anything fundamentally different from the BREW Get It Now portal it's supported since 2001?

The answer is both yes and no, said Julien Blin, principal analyst at JBB Research. By supporting Java, Verizon is migrating to a more open application environment and tapping into the largest developer community in the world, Blin said. And since most BREW developers also build their apps in Java, Verizon isn't sacrificing any of its existing content, Blin added. Because the store will initially be available on higher-end devices, the new app store will likely have a richer user experience, far beyond the bare-bones browser-based storefront available to most feature phone users.

The particulars and platform may differ, Blin said, but Verizon's new app store—or any app store for that matter—still boils down to the one-stop application and content storefront carriers have been offering for the last decade. "Generally speaking, I think it is fair to say that carriers like Sprint, Verizon, and AT&T already have a mobile app store," Blin said. "They just don't call it an app store."

Qualcomm (NASDAQ:QCOM) takes umbrage to the suggestion that Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) created a new kind of distribution service when it launched its app store last year. "We've been offering an app store for eight years," said Arvin Chander, Qualcomm Internet services vice president. Chander gives Apple credit for creating and designing a highly innovative product and drawing attention to mobile applications through its marketing, but he pointed out that Apple's success is limited to a single device and a single operating system on which the user experience can be readily optimized.

The difference between an app store and a mobile portal seems to be more marketing than anything else, Blin said. While Apple, Research in Motion and Nokia have taken steps to add rich graphics and preview capabilities to create snazzier portals, carriers have long supported many of the key features associated with app portals such as one-step purchasing and recommendations.

"Carriers haven't advertised their app stores or storefronts as much as companies like Nokia, Apple, or BlackBerry," Blin said. Instead of tossing out their storefronts, carriers will likely add more functionality, thus elevating them to the status of app stores, Blin said.

To achieve that app-store feeling, Verizon may not have to do all that much more tweaking. Verizon announced at CTIA Wireless a new mobile games and apps store and is planning a developers' conference this summer to encourage more content on its mobile deck. And just because Verizon is opening the door for Java doesn't mean it's abandoning BREW. "As long as there is a viable brew ecosystem, we don't have any plans to eliminate brew," a VZW spokesman said.

Verizon could even choose to keep its backend billing and distribution system in place. In recent years Qualcomm has taken steps to open up its BREW platform, separating the distribution, catalog and client aspects into separate components. The BREW billing and distribution platform could be used to distribute and charge for new Java apps when the app store goes live. Though Qualcomm and Verizon have revealed no plans to expand their relationship, Qualcomm is moving its BREW technology in the same direction Verizon is heading. Last month, Qualcomm unveiled the latest version of its client and storefront technology, Plaza Retail, which supports both Java and BREW on the same platform.

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© 2014 Penton Media Inc.

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