Platform developers in the cross-hairs

AOL has acquired Wildseed, Amp’d bought Ninja and now Google has purchased Android. There must be few mobile software developers who haven’t been approached as an acquisition target in recent months! What is driving this trend and what are the wider implications for the industry?

While it would be interesting to see a company like AOL applying Wildseed’s SmartSkin technology, which uses intelligent hardware covers to personalise the interface, applications and physical appearance of a handset, on a mass market basis, it is unlikely this will ever happen. AOL may incorporate elements of Wildseed’s original concept into its overall mobile offering, but this is more about acquiring expertise than acquiring Wildseed’s existing business strategy.

The same is true of the Ninja and Android acquisitions.

If you spend some time searching around mobile communities on the web, they are awash with job openings at a wide range of US-based media and tech companies. These organisations are recruiting at a frenetic pace, conscious that there is a rapidly emerging opportunity for building on their existing brands and customer relationships to deliver mobile services.

Acquiring a pre-integrated team of mobile software experts, especially one which already has relationships with carriers and handset manufacturers, is one way to solve a human resources headache. In many of these instances, I suspect much of the original IP developed by the acquired company will be ignored by its new parent.

A rationalisation of the mobile application platforms market is long overdue and these acquisitions as part of that process. I remember putting together a conference focused specifically on these technologies this time last year and there were more than 50 companies all offering almost identical pieces of mobile middleware. Some have since been acquired, others have run out of funding and many are changing the focus of their business, but the window of opportunity is closing rapidly.

The majority of operators and handset manufacturers who are in a position to buy products from these companies have already made their decision on which platforms to support in the short- to medium-term. Yes, I’m sure there will be a few niche product offerings which sit outside this framework, but the message from the industry has been clear: we want a few high volume, standards-based platforms supported by large and open developer communities.

Media companies with MVNO aspirations and pockets deep enough to buy their own software platforms will eventually arrive at the same conclusion.

It will be interesting to see the outcome of the “Key technology enablers” panel debate at MEX in a couple of weeks, which is focused specifically on these issues.

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