Summary: As O2 UK's Litmus developer proramme matures into a global corporate project for Telefonica, we analyse the business model challenges it faces in becoming a vibrant community for developers and a value driver for the company.
Back in March, we said that O2's Litmus developer site was "better than the Apple App Store". Quite a claim, as it turned out. We based it on the deep integration of Litmus with the range of social and business enablers it provided in addition to the O2 network APIs. As well as a generous revenue share and quick payment, Litmus offered access to O2's billing system to help cash collection, crowdsourced testing from Mob4Hire, Web-hosting services, and the tantalising prospect of access to an internal Telefonica venture capital group.
In terms of product quality, Litmus's recently added some highly interesting APIs. For example: the ability to query the current status and capabilities of a device, whether the user has sufficient credit to make a payment, if they have an inclusive data plan, whether they are in a WLAN hotspot, and whether or not they are currently roaming.
The importance of this kind of contextual data - call it Level 1 context - for delivering an excellent user experience with mobile applications and content is hard to overestimate, and it avoids most of the political issues that dog some other forms of context, like user behaviour and social graph data (call them Level 2 context). Overall then, the potential quality of application looks encouraging.
But how about quantity? At the moment, there are 36 pages of apps on sale at Litmus, plus three more for testing; at 10 apps to the page, that's 390 apps. Many of them are versions of the same application for different devices or localisations, so the count of active projects is rather less than that. It's also true that a lot of people submit their applications to every app store going, sensibly enough, so there is quite a bit of duplication.
So far, this is a respectable try, but it's nowhere near Apple's app count. However, as we'll see later on, stacking up apps in an app store isn't the only strategy available.
A further indicator on the quantity of development activity is that the forums at o2litmus.co.uk look worryingly quiet. Another traditional measure of activity at an open-source project is the traffic on the mailing list; there doesn't seem to be that much going on. This is something Litmus has in common with the other mobile dev platforms - the Symbian and Forum Nokia ones are patchy at best. Perhaps this point from The Information Architecture of Social Experience Design's list of anti-patterns for Web sites applies:
"a Potemkin Village is an overly elaborated set of empty community discussion areas or other collaborative spaces, created in anticipation of a thriving population rather than grown organically in response to their needs".
So, why aren't we seeing much more development activity at Litmus? It's a big question, especially as Litmus is meant to be under active development. What are the warning signs of a community that might end up looking like this?
The critical challenge is getting to sufficient scale, which is vitally important to the success of platform business models like Litmus. O2 UK has 18 million subscribers; if 10% are conscious of apps, that is an addressable user base of c1.8 million.
Further, it's probably true that iPhone owners tend to be power users, being a self-selected group of early adopters. (According to Ray da Silva of Vodafone, iPhone users exhibit 7 times greater usage than the closest rival group, BlackBerry users.) And O2 has the exclusive right to distribute iPhones in the UK, so the bulk of O2's power users are probably concentrated in its population of iPhones. Those 1.5 million O2 iPhone users have the App Store to go to, which is integrated with the hardware and software and prominently placed on the device. If our estimates are close, that leaves about a fifth of that number, or 300 thousand or so who might use Litmus.
So, Telefonica / O2 faces a strategic dilemma. How should it balance investment in creating and serving the huge (but ultimately Apple's) iPhone community and the nascent and home-grown Litmus eco-system?
And, as we've often pointed out, telcos consistently overestimate the degree to which their subscribers constitute a real community or want to have any affinity with their operator. Apple, at least, can claim to be the proud owner of a cult, an image it works extremely hard to maintain. Probably no other hardware vendor in mobile can claim that, and the OS vendors aren't much better off although Symbian tries hard.
This is important, because active developer communities tend to be driven by a smallish core group of members. Recruiting new members of this group is critical for long term survival. On the other hand, the problems, ideas, feedback, and money coming into such a community usually originate in another community core group - the user elite. The line between the power users and the developer community is necessarily fuzzy, but it's crucial that you have enough people in the user community who are passionately engaged with the product to support the developer core group.
Fragmentation is another challenge resulting from insufficient scale; it's a serious problem if you have to keep refactoring your code to work on dozens of different devices and OS platforms. Equally, being fragmented between operators is no better; in terms of scale, developing for Symbian is going to beat developing for O2 UK.
Put together, these issues add up to a serious overall challenge to the viability of Litmus in its current form as anything other than a test of limited scale and ultimately limited value.
So perhaps Telefonica, and the industry as a whole, should be looking for other organising principles for developer communities - whether to build scale in their own right or just to get to 'critical mass' in the community? Rather than being operator- or vendor- specific, perhaps they should be application-specific or problem-specific?
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