Depending which way you look at it, the GSMA led Wholesale Applications Community (WAC) has either been a great success, or an abject failure. Set up to challenge and take advantage of the remarkable success of handset maker application stores and unite the fragmented mobile operator marketplace, the WAC has all but disappeared, in name at least.

It did, however, succeed in giving developers the tools to write software that can be deployed across multiple operating systems, handsets and carrier networks. Its Web Run Time client is now enabled on approximately 12 million devices and its in-application billing network API has been adopted by nine mobile operators, but that technology has now been sold to API tool experts, Apigee. The press announcements all gloss over the fact the WAC is no more and will be ‘absorbed’ into the GSMA, in other words, it failed to stand on its own. So what went wrong?

In February 2011, The Insider wrote: “At the Mobile World Congress in 2010 the big news was the GSMA announcement of the Wholesale Applications Community (WAC) that would be the mobile industry’s response to the myriad of over the top (OTT) players led by Apple that were successfully selling applications direct to their customers and using the mobile networks as one of the mediums for delivery, at no cost.  The WAC was initially supported by 27 operators worldwide and the ranks swelled in the twelve months after the announcement but the WAC was still not operational. In the meantime Apple managed to deliver over 10 billion apps through its own iTunes platform. One can only guess how many Android and RIM can add to those numbers.”

Then, in April 2011, “Addressing rising costs has been a big priority for every CSP over the past five years but the nature of the telecoms industry and the intense competition it generates has often been a barrier to other cooperative efforts. Attempts to set up payments models, joint content stores and even app stores such as the WAC have often been protracted or simply ended in abject failure.”

While the mobile industry continued to grapple with the WAC, Apple, Android and most of their rivals were selling billions of applications, not primarily to make money but to support the hardware they sell.

Despite its best efforts, the GSMA, like other industry bodies, can only really provide thought leadership and process – providing an environment for members to work together to achieve results. This is admirable but not necessarily effective, especially when the objective puts it in direct competition with powerful vendors that can make substantial investment in innovation and move at the speed of light.

What should have been a brilliant example of how the mobile telecom industry could compete head on with the likes of Apple, Android and RIM by supplying ubiquitous applications and APIs from its own platform to millions of app-hungry customers happy to be billed via their mobile phone accounts, has faded.

Getting 27+, often competitive, mobile operators to agree on anything is one thing, but to get them to work on a single project, with a single goal, has proved an almost impossible task. Early in WAC’s life it became apparent that some operators had more desire, more drive and certainly more influence, but it needed a full-on assault with strong leadership and run on a commercial basis for it to reach its milestones on time.

So much has changed in the app space in the two and a half years the WAC was announced with such fanfare. Initial claims that the first results would be seen in six months proved to be hogwash, and now we see it being broken up and the technology going to where it probably should have started, to a vendor that knows the business. Most big projects in the telecom industry are outsourced so it begs the question why the GSMA and its WAC members did not simply go out and find the best-of-breed solution available at the time or ‘acquire’ a promising start-up to develop the WAC objectives and make the subsequent products and services available to all contributing members at an attractive price.

This is not a criticism of the GSMA and other similar bodies, including TM Forum; it simply highlights that commercial ideas need commercial execution to succeed. This is an industry where most of the innovation comes from the OTT players, the vendor community and, more recently, by external commercial entities set up and funded by CSPs such as Telefónica’s Wayra incubators. Industry bodies are still the best places to formulate, collect, foster and define ideas – but they may not be the best places to commercialize them.

First published at TM Forum as The Insider, 18 July 2012