Saturday, February 19, 2011

Smart's Netphone and WAC

We recently wrote about, what we call, the ChinaDroid. These are low cost, good quality Google Android powered powered phones which we expect to proliferate in the local market soon.  At the 2011 World Mobile Congress, Smart Communications revealed it first "Netphone." The unit displayed was the Netphone was a Smart badged ZTE Blade. This is a 3.5-inch touchscreen Android, with a 800x480 pixel resolution screen powered by a 600MHz processor and 512MB of RAM (specifications may vary). The phone runs Google's Android 2.2. The announced retail price is a surprisingly low Php5,000-Php7,000.

Smarts Netphone is a re-branded ZTE Blade

However, this is more than just another ChinaDroid. Other than the very decent specifications, the other interesting feature of this phone is that is  a WAC platform. WAC stands for Wholesale Applications Community. WAC is an organisation that is trying to create a unified and open platform to allow mobile software developers to more easily write applications usable on a variety of devices, operating systems and networks.  At least 48 companies are members of the organisation. The Smart Netphone is powered by Google's Android 2.2 operating system with the WAC software managed by Red Bend Software. The WAC platform will allow users to access widgets pushed directly through Red Bend.

While this may all sound good, I do not high hopes for the WAC platform. Is there really a need for a system of delivering universal widgets when the browser can be that mechanism? In a feature phone world, this would have been a useful service, but with Android devices becoming more and more affordable Smart Communication might be better off focusing on offering localized application through the Android Market or preloaded on Smart branded Android phones. In the end, WAC creates another app store, to compete with the existing Apple, Google and Microsoft app stores.

But you from a carrier standpoint, this is a way to regain control of their market. From the 1990's until 2007, carriers were responsible for most technology innovations like SMS, email via SMS, voicemail, MMS and high speed networks. During the last few years, innovation in mobile services is migrating to the handset manufacturer and software developers. Instead of needing the operators to provide new and exciting services for which they could charge, all smartphone owners really want from a operator now is voice, SMS and data services. With the data services, the user can avail of services which used to be the domain of the carrier.

By way of example, Smart's SMART FINDER service  allows you to find the nearest restaurant, ATM, gas station, bank or any other establishment for a fee of Php5.00 through SMS, WAP or the internet. With modern GPS enabled smartphones, the same services are provided by Google through its Places application. All you need to pay for is the data connection. Wide adoption of a web based messaging platform could even threaten income from SMS services. WAC is a way to get carriers back in the game.

Will this initiative succeed? I do not think so. The internet has been successful because of the freedom it offers. No one wants to be given a menu of apps to use and additional software running in the background. As for the Netphone itself. Carrier back low cost Android devices will certainly be a hit provided they are not so hampered by bloatware that it hampers their performance.

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