China Mobile powers app store with Symbian deal

China Mobile and the Symbian Foundation have teamed up to promote the carrier’s next-generation wireless standard and its application download store for handsets, the two said Wednesday.

The deal comes as the Symbian Foundation steps up promotion of its mobile platform in China and as China Mobile works to build its mobile application store, which launched last month with support for smartphones from companies including Dell.

Under the deal, China Mobile will support Symbian Horizon, a program that lets Symbian developers submit applications to multiple application stores at once, the two organizations said in a statement.

That could speed growth for the number of applications in the China Mobile store, which now stands below 2,000. The deal also grants faster Symbian Signed certification for applications submitted to the China Mobile store, which offers downloads for multiple operating systems.

The Symbian Foundation is promoting its OS in China as rival platforms like the iPhone and Android steal ground from Symbian. Symbian remains the world’s top mobile OS, but largely because it is used by Nokia. The Symbian Foundation recently launched a Chinese version of its Web site and plans to set up a Beijing office, it said.

The China Mobile store may face competition from the carrier’s two rivals, China Unicom and China Telecom, which are developing similar paid download platforms. A further challenge could come from the iPhone App Store when the handset launches in China. China Unicom aims to start selling the iPhone in the fourth quarter, though it is unclear how the App Store will operate under the state-owned carrier.

China Mobile had over 497 million subscribers in July, making it the world’s largest carrier by number of accounts. But few of those users so far have used the carrier’s download store, called the Mobile Market. The store booked around 200,000 downloads in its first three weeks, according to local media.

The China Mobile store still lacks the critical mass needed to attract submissions from many developers, said Bjorn Stabell, managing director at Exoweb Labs, a Beijing-based software development services company.

Stabell’s company sells applications in the iPhone App Store and is porting one of its games to Symbian, but it would not be interested in developing for the Mobile Market or Symbian Horizon now, Stabell said.

Carrier-run app stores are also unattractive for developers who want to publish applications worldwide, he said. The iPhone App Store, which is run by Apple, lets developers launch applications globally by clearing one approval process, but a carrier may only be able to offer the applications to subscribers in its region. Symbian Horizon may help solve that problem for the OS but is unlikely to make distribution, payment and usage reporting as convenient for developers as the Apple store does, Stabell said.

“All of these little issues add up to a lot of costs for small developers,” he said.

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