What Makes a Great Operator Developer Program?

These days, it’s no longer enough for a mobile operator to have a fast network, exclusive handsets and competitive pricing. An operator also needs thousands of developers using their APIs and SDKs to develop apps that work better on its network and devices than on the competition’s. 

That’s why most major operators now have extensive programs that typically include websites, conferences and support teams, all designed to foster a community of devoted developers.

“Community engagement absolutely is one of the ways that we differentiate ourselves,” says Carolyn Billings, assistant vice president of AT&T’s developer program.

Creating an environment that encourages third-party development goes back to at least February 1999, when Japan’s NTT DoCoMo launched iMode. Eighteen months later, more than 20,000 websites were available on iMode because DoCoMo chose CHTML to make development easy.

That strategy tacitly acknowledged that developers are often better at figuring out what consumers want than mobile operators are. Giving developers the right tools and then turning them loose also saves operators the cost and risk and developing a lot of apps in house.

Plenty of Face Time

Most operator programs include events in developer hotbeds such as the Bay Area, as well as road shows and events co-located with major confabs such as CES. Regardless of the location, these events often provide a high-level roadmap of where the operator plans to go technology- and device-wise over the next years. However, they rarely include specifics such as when a particular device or technology will launch.

“They have their way of reading between the lines to figure out what the mix is going to be,” Billings says. “But it’s a no-no for us to be launching early there.”

Events such as hackathons also are an opportunity to get hands-on time with new APIs and work with the operator staff who created them. One example is Sprint’s October 2012 hackathon, which featured more than 175 developers working in teams to create apps in 24 hours.

“Among the various APIs and SDKs made available for use during the hack by Sprint and our partners was the Pinsight Media+ beta SDKs for Android, iOS and JavaScript,” says Brian Smith, Sprint director of product and development. “Pinsight Media+ is an advertising and analytics platform that we launched early in the fourth quarter of [2012]. It’s an opportunity for advertisers to engage in high-value targeted inventory and another opportunity for developers to monetize their applications.”

With so many operator events these days, developers inevitably have to pick and choose. One thing to look for is the amount of operator staff in attendance. For example, in 2012, AT&T held a daylong conference about its new APIs at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif. Several hundred developers attended.

“We designed the event to have a 10:1 ratio: For every 10 developers in the room, there was an AT&T expert on hand,” Billings says.

Not every developer has the time and budget to travel to operator events. Operator portals provide an alternative, including facilitating virtual networking with fellow developers.

“If you like to integrate telephony, conference calls, messaging or interactive voice response systems (IVRs) into your applications, Deutsche Telekom´s developer portal is the place to go for APIs, sophisticated components, documentation, support, news, tutorials and events,” says Sascha Wolter, Deutsche Telekom developer evangelist. “You can [also] offer your own software components to other developers or easily find pre-built and pre-tested libraries in the marketplace.”

Give and Take

Hackathons also are an opportunity for operators to get unvarnished feedback. “This important and valuable feedback helps us to improve our products,” Wolter says. “Just to give you a small example: Recently we supported a partner creating a voice-controlled coffee machine. We found some issues, which we have been able to immediately fix thanks to this direct channel between our partners and our development team.”

Operators often help put the spotlight on apps, giving developers promotion opportunities that otherwise would be difficult or expensive to secure. One example is Sprint’s Place Your Ad auction, where developers bid for prominent placement in the Sprint Zone and the Sprint Tab in the Google Play store.

“Some companies tell us that they’ve seen a four-fold increase in downloads of their application from participating in the auctions,” Smith says. “Driving click-throughs and downloads means better monetization for developers. Cost per click through the auction process is as low as a penny, so it’s cheaper than almost any other form of advertising.”