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AT&T Apps Beta Includes Customer Feedback

AT&T's launch of Apps Beta, a new program that gives developers the chance to test applications and get direct consumer feedback before finalizing their products, signals a major shift in the way mobile operators and developers work together, according to one analyst.

Through Apps Beta, developers can get direct access to customer feedback, including apps ratings, feature suggestions and bugs. An interactive community forum aggregates user-generated content and offers tag clouds to indicate the most active discussions around various applications, with a typical trial period of roughly four to six weeks. Additionally, developers can use Apps Beta to get targeted user input for applications they may have already launched broadly.

AT&T plans to use consumer feedback from Apps Beta to help improve its applications portfolio as well as inform its go-to-market activities for applications. For example, apps that are particularly well-received may be made available through AT&T's content and multimedia storefront, AT&T Media Mall, and could receive additional promotional support or featured placement in customer-facing channels.

"Our goal is to deepen the dialogue with developers and give customers a chance to tell us what works and what doesn't," David Christopher, chief marketing officer for AT&T mobility and consumer markets, said in a statement. "We hope that by facilitating this level of collaboration between the developer community and early adopters, we'll see even more innovation."

In-Stat analyst David Chamberlain, who recently authored a report predicting smartphone app usage would quadruple in the next five years, said the Apps Beta model is different from what we've seen before and could be a sound strategy for keeping mobile operators as an important part of the app equation.

"If you compare (the Apps Beta model) with the traditional relationship, the mobile operator [traditionally] controls almost everything, from the types of apps that are offered to their placement on the WAP deck for sale and the revenue split," said Chamberlain.

"However, in the Apple iPhone model, the operator isn't involved at all. The operator's revenue all comes from the monthly data access charges. AT&T's model appears to split the difference -- the openness of an app store but operator involvement by providing a beta audience and marketing. It seems to be a rational way to avoid becoming the 'bit pipe' operators have been dreading for years."

The AT&T Apps Beta program comes at a time when everyone in the mobile industry is gunning for marketshare in the app sector, which is expected to explode in the next several years. The increase in smartphone app usage is also providing unprecedented opportunities for mobile marketing, which in turn will result in a whole new industry catering to mobile ad analytics.

Just last week, Research In Motion (NASDAQ: RIMM) opened its BlackBerry App World as its answer to Apple's (NASDAQ: AAPL) successful App Store for the iPhone and eBay also announced plans to enter the fray, while Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) plans to open one at the end of the year.

Looking at Android

In other AT&T news, the company also confirmed that AT&T Mobility CEO Ralph de la Vega said that AT&T is looking at customizing the Google Android OS for future device roll-outs.

"We continue to work with our several manufacturers to look at possible Android devices," de la Vega said. "We're still working with a manufacturer and the Android system to make sure that it does what we want it to do."

Meanwhile, news of Android-based devices was sparse at the last two big industry tradeshows - Vodafone's HTC Magic at Mobile World Congress and nada at CTIA. Yet, carriers seem anxious to embrace it, as news leaked today of a T-Mobile tablet and phone coming out next year.

The New York Times reported that T-Mobile will sell a home phone early next year and soon after a tablet computer, both running Android. The phone will plug into a docking station and come with another device that handles data synchronization as it recharges the phone's battery, according to documents that the New York Times obtained by one of the company's partners.

T-Mobile declined to comment on the reports.