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Global App Store to Challenge iPhone?

If there's strength in numbers Apple might be shaking in its boots, but don't count on it.

Some 24 mobile carriers, including some of the biggest global players with access to more than 3 billion customers worldwide, said this week that they're joining forces on the Wholesale Applications Community (WAC), an open platform designed to deliver applications to all mobile phone users.

Three of the largest device manufacturers, LG Electronics, Samsung and Sony Ericsson, also said they support the WAC along with the GSMA, the mobile industry group that produces the giant Mobile World Congress trade event where the announcement was made.

The iPhone's App Store model has been wildly successful, growing to more than 140,000 applications, albeit limited to the iPhone and iPod Touch devices. The idea has been copied most successfully by the Android Marketplace, which has grown to more than 20,000 applications available on a range of devices powered by Google's (NASDAQ: GOOG) Android operating system. In recent weeks, report have surfaced describing a significant uptick in developer submissions for Apple's (NASDAQ: AAPL) forthcoming iPad tablet computer, which promises to grow App Store even further.

So as Apple laps the competition, the WAC is barely getting off the ground with an announcement that shows it to be very much a work in progress. "Ultimately, we will collectively work with the W3C (World Wide Web Consortium) for a common standard based on our converged solution to truly ensure developers can create applications that port across mobile device platforms, and in the future between fixed and mobile devices," the WAC said in a statement.

For now, WAC said it would leverage work done on JIL and OMTP BONDI to evolve a common standard within the next 12 months. JIL, for Joint Innovation Lab, might have been a kind of precursor to WAC. It was launched as a joint effort by China Mobile, Softbank and Vodafone (with Verizon Wireless joining later) to develop a platform for mobile services across different devices. Similarly, OMTP BONDI is an industry collaboration aiming to simplify the creation of widgets and mobile Web apps that can be distributed securely across multiple device platforms.

Analyst Jack Gold said he heard nothing in the WAC announcement to convince him Apple has anything to fear.

The carriers want to figure out a way to get revenue from applications, but I'm not seeing how this is going to make life any easier for mobile users," Gold, who heads the mobile research firm, J. Gold Associates, told InternetNews.com. "If I buy a device, I want to find the applications from the vendor and download them. If I need a quart of milk, I don't go to the Walmart superstore, I go locally. I don't see, if this is going to be a huge marketplace, what the value-add is."

He added, "We'll just have to see since what they come out with since there are so few details so far. It's easy to announce stuff, but Apple's making it work today."

Apple could not be reached for comment on the new initiative.

An open ecosystem for mobile developers

For developers, WAC said its aim is to "create a wholesale applications ecosystem that -- from day one -- will establish a simple route to market for developers to deliver the latest innovative applications and services to the widest possible base of customers around the world." The GSMA said in a statement of support that this new, open ecosystem would spur creation of applications that can be used regardless of device, operating system or operator.

Jonathan Arber, a senior research analyst at IDC, said the initiative has the potential to help developers who currently have to rewrite applications for different platforms.

"Developers want to meet the largest possible addressable market, as efficiently and painlessly as possible, and the Wholesale Applications Community initiative can meet these criteria by providing a simple, single point of access to a large number of operator storefronts," Arber said in a statement. "The initiative should also help to drive uptake of existing, open standards among developers, operators and manufacturers, thereby reducing fragmentation and benefiting the whole industry."

David Needle is the West Coast bureau chief at InternetNews.com, the news service of Internet.com, the network for technology professionals.