The UK carrier O2 UK will launch a developer platform called Litmus tomorrow, giving international developers potential access to O2 UK’s 18 million subscribers.

Developers can upload their applications into an app store to get user feedback and sales from a pre-selected, early adopter Litmus community. Litmus users will be incented to download, rate and otherwise give feedback to app developers. For O2 UK, the platform aims to be an “early radar” on good apps. If the community rates an application favorably, O2 will offer the app to its main customer base.

O2 UK has the largest number of subscribers in the UK. The move is just the latest by a carrier to follow steps already taken T-Mobile USA, which launched its web2go browsing experience and a related app store just 3 weeks ago.

O2 is the UK subsidiary of mobile operator Telefonica, the world’s third largest carrier. If Litmus is successful, it will launch internationally into Telefonica’s 24 markets. Telefonica has a total of 220 million subscribers. If successful, the program would signify a strengthening trend of mobile web surfing and use of related apps. That is because app stores let mobile customers much better find applications they like and then use, very often accessing the mobile web.

Mobile developer programs have got an uphill battle. A couple of weeks ago, I listened to a great presentation from industry expert Michael Mace. He presented a graph showing growing numbers of registered mobile developers in a Palm developer program in 98/99, then went on to explain why it failed. He came up with criteria of what to look for in an ecosystem of mobile application marketplaces today: “The ideal mobile app ecosystem would have the API power of the iPhone ,and the discovery experience of the iPhone store, coupled with business terms that allow add-on APIs like Flash, Java and Google Gears, all working across a much larger base of devices.”

We first came across Litmus at the Mobile 2.0 conference early last month. I recently interviewed the head of Litmus, James Parton (left), to hear what he wants to do to make Litmus successful.

James, what is Litmus ?

Litmus is a platform where early adopters among our customers interact with developers. Litmus is about customers telling us what they like and what they don’t like. Success at Litmus is defined by customers, and not by us. For app developers, Litmus is great way to get user feedback and sales.

Tell me what we see in this screenshot (see below).

The screenshot shows you the what a public visitor first sees when he enters the website. Initially we’ve got two main modules of the homepage. We’ve got a “featured apps” and a “latest apps” module. The applications which get the highest rating from the community rise to the top and get more visibility. On this module it’s purely about users giving the apps grades from 1 to 5. There are other modules once you enter the site. All these modules are dynamic and will change in time, though.

So successful apps from Litmus will be integrated in the O2 deck (in other words, integrated directly in the phone)?

Yes, it’s a two-stage process. Those applications which our customers use and like the most will rise to the top of the charts. Then we can come and say “those are the apps our customers like,” take them and launch them into our main customer base. Litmus will be like an “early radar” for us. Our ultimate goal is to have as many applications as possible to go through the process into the network. That’s where be all make money, that’s the endgame.

Who’s the target audience of the program ?

From a developers perspective, we want to encourage international developers. We allow any developer, from anywhere to join Litmus. To begin with, we’ll support payment in dollars, euros and pounds sterling. From a customers perspective, we will only be able to offer the service to O2 UK customers initially.

Please walk me through the developer use case. I’m a developer, I click on “register” on your site. What happens then, what do I see on the next screen ?

We basically ask you to complete a very simple, standard registration form. And if you are interested in selling apps at Litmus you complete your bank details. And then you are in. The process takes 3-4 minutes, it’s pretty straight-forward.

And then I can upload my app straight away into the app store and it shows up?

You basically have two choices. You can upload your application as a test. So you can start getting feedback about it from the community. Or you can upload it as a commercial application for sale. You set the price you want for the app. Then the applications goes into moderation. We don’t make judgment on the quality of the app. We simply check that the app does not contain any viruses, and we make sure it’s up to our content standards policy. There’s no contract between the developer and Litmus, we are simply an intermediary. There’s a direct contract between the user and a developer when the user buys an app.

What do you aim for in the approval process?

We want the apps to be approved within 24 hours.

What are you doing to promote developers?

When you join Litmus, the main marketing opportunity is to reach the audience. There’s a typical user interface to browse the app store. You can search by developer, application category, handset or OS. Apps also appear in other modules.

When you do the migration to the main channels, then obviously there is a number of opportunities. You’ll get into the normal WAP deck. We will do a lot of PR around the successful case studies who made it through the program. We’ve also got plans to add other channels next year, but we are not ready to talk about them at the moment.

We want to showcase successful developers of the platform. That’s the kind of stuff people can expect when they make it. Initially they get featured all over the place at Litmus.

What about a roadmap for developers ?

When you look at the screenshot, you see a link “forums”. When you are signed in, one of the forums you will see is a roadmap forum. In there, we will publish all our plans. We really want the community tell us where the prioritiies should be.

O2 UK also sells the iPhone. Will developers be allowed to put in iphone apps into Litmus?


Will customers be able to buy iPhone apps?

They have to buy iPhone apps from the iPhone app store. However, they will be able to buy apps uploaded to Litmus that are available for the wide range of handsets available on O2 Litmus, with more compatible devices being added all the time.

What’s the policy with Apple?

We are currently in talks with Apple to look at how we can work together in partnership.

One type of skepticism I’ve heard from developers is that although developer programs may be well intended, there’s little organizational focus in their executions. Key personnel leave or get shuffled. Strategies are flipped. What do you say about that ?

The risk is always there, I admit. There are strategy changes as you say, people come and go, things get closed down. This won’t happen with Litmus as we are not locked up somewhere in a tower.

Can you tell me where the program fits in O2’s organization?

We are firmly established within the organization. Litmus is part of the O2 marketing strategy, we are part of the O2 marketing plan. We have a direction from the companies’ top with Litmus.

What’s success for O2?

There are three main criteria. One is case studies which launch into main business. That’s where we make money, both the developer and O2. Then there’s customer reaction. Do Litmus customers feel special, do they feel like they shape the agenda ? Then there’s the O2 brand perspective. Are we innovative?

What will be success for Litmus in 12 months?

Because we work in the industry we believe that fast-paced changes happen. Personally, though, I wonder. O2 UK has 18 million customers. They will not all downloading and using apps by next christmas. That will not happen. For me, the next 12 months of Litmus will be about these things: We would like to establish credibility within the industry and establish networks with VCs, development communities, device suppliers. We would like to achieve a critical mass. That means a certain amount of downloads, customers etc. Then we want to have various case studes of apps which have launched into the main network.

And how does that relate to Telefonica?

And then there’s the international story, of course. Telefonica’s got 220 million subscribers. If the UK as a lead market is a success, then we want to roll out Litmus into Telefonica’s 24 markets. Our ambition is to roll out this concept within Telefonica in 2009.

Internally, this is the biggest project to date where we help Telefonica deliver the actual solution. We work with a guy called Carlos Domingo, who you may know from Mobile 2.0 events, it’s his team which is doing all the software development for Litmus.

What’s your early marketing steps and how do you differentiate yourself?

In the beginning it is about some old-fashioned PR and networking. It is really about spreading the message to the industry. It’s very important for us to tell everybody how we differentiate ourselves from other developer programs. It’s a commercial environment. You start earning money once you register with us. We want to enforce this message. We believe this is attractive to the VC community as they get a return on their investment.

That’s a steep change for us as an operator. Historically, developers had to reach guys like me. Organization is tough to do. They’ve got to go through this long process in order to bring these services to market through us. These guys can’t burn huge amounts of cash for the small ray of hope to be accepted by a carrier.We don’t want it to be perceived as yet another mobile developer program. There are hundreds of programs. It’s not a technological competition on ‘who’s got the most APIs.’We also like to call our program a “customer program” or a “co-creation community”. Litmus is marketing driven. We don’t want to use technological lingo like “API” on the site.

How do you want to acquire the users? You told me before that you aiming at an early adopted demographic.

The challenge for us is to build a community which is savvy enough to give a lot back to the developers. And also to be large enough to give them back enough sales. There are basically three ways users can join Litmus. First, we will do a [customer relation management] campaign within our customer base in the UK based on the type of devices they use and their usage of mobile data plans. They will be contacted by email. These emails will be starting to get out in the second and third week of January. We want developers to create an app inventory first. Second, once you are a member you can invite others into Litmus. Third, when you click “about” on the homepage there is an option to request a membership.

I want to get an idea of how big that initial customer market may be. How many of these emails will be sent out?

I can not tell you that, I’m afraid.

Let’s talk about the app store model. Do you want to tie users to operator decks ?

We don’t care that much whether users go on-deck or off-deck. Let’s face it. If a customer has got a N95 and an internet connection he goes off-deck anyway. We are also an iPhone partner and see first hand what customers do. We can’t force customers to browse within operator decks. What we care about is data revenue and turning customers into loyal fans. That’s a win-win conversation.

Many Silicon Valley folks, including our own writer MG Siegler, rave about the app store as a discovery tool for apps. They predict device makers and carriers will switch to the app store model because of the iPhone example. Is Litmus just O2’s way of reacting to such startup concerns?

It’s still a very immature market. Obviously, the iPhone app store is doing great things. But I think it’s far too early to try to make decisions going to single channels.

I think the best approach, both from an operator’s perspective, customer and developer perspective, is to provide as many routes to market as possible. That way you maximize the chances that applications are successful. I personally believe there is still a lot of mileage in operator decks. Let’s not forget that the mass market is still not using any mobile internet services. There are still many people who have a normal handheld. They want a more managed experience and an operator deck provides that. There are many ways how to get an application to market. Litmus as a platform aims to be a particularly good way how developers can make money.