Inspiring Innovation By Driving Developers

Telcos have been allowing outside developers access to their networks to capitalise on expertise and opportunities. Dialog Axiata was a late bloomer to this but its unique approach has won global plaudits.

By Isankya Kodithuwakku.

Published on May 21, 2015 with No Comments

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In the early nineties, telcos started allowing entrepreneurs access to their systems to allow them to build and deliver services. The goal was to disrupt the telco business model by making a simple, template-driven application development platform available to anyone to build apps its customers can use. Telcos benefit by sharing revenue with the app developers, by being able to take advantage of innovation outside the company, and by introducing new applications and services faster than they would be able to develop these themselves. “There’s only so much you can do as a telco to innovate inside,” explains Anthony Rodrigo, Dialog’s Group Chief Information & Chief Digital Services Officer. “If you expose your assets, you might create additional services.”

Dialog launched Ideamart two years ago. Through the “Idea Apps” and “Idea Pro” pages on ideamart.lk, Ideamart shares the network’s application programming interfaces (APIs), which are language application programmes used to communicate with operating systems. APIs are what developers use to build apps. Some APIs include mobile payment integrations, in-app purchasing, location tracking and SMS alerts/updates.

Ideamart has exposed Dialog’s APIs to developers in niche areas that the telco may never have otherwise reached. Apps range from beauty and taxi services to those that cater to particular schools or charities. A few apps were developed for preachers to reach their parishes. Some apps are event-driven. During last year’s annual book exhibition at BMICH, a University of Moratuwa student built an app to find the location of a desired book.

Consumers can subscribe to these apps on ideamart.lk at its “All Apps” store. The apps have either a Rs.3 to Rs.5 charge per transaction or a monthly subscription of Rs.30 to Rs.60. The annual book exhibition app charged for each SMS sent with a book’s location, while a taxi app may charge a 20% commission on the fare.

Ideamart’s app-building venture saw little traction initially, and the team realized that exposing its APIs to outside developers alone was not enough. The telco had to educate them about how to use this software. “We realized the platform was just the foundation,” says Rodrigo. This was done by providing training manuals and instructing developers when they visited the Ideamart offices. The company has also organized over 80 workshops, hackathons and digital forums over the past two years.

“You have hardcore developers as well as those who don’t have a tech background,” says Rodrigo. “This opened the platform to both segments. Now anyone can create an app on it. Most of our long-term developers are non-tech. They use template apps to create theirs.”

d“You can build very quickly and very cheaply, so the cost of failure is minimal,” says Dialog’s Head of Product Service Innovation Venura Mendis. “It’s a place where experimentation happens. If they get traction, they can invest in the service and grow it.”

Ideamart developers don’t exit after building an app. They help to launch and run it. Dialog engages with them by helping to market the product. Typically, an outside developer providing an app to a telco may find that it takes months to finalize legal contracts and product management, but with Ideamart, it all takes 10 minutes. “An entire set of barriers has been removed,” says Rodrigo. “That’s why we have gone from the traditional tens of services to thousands now.”

Through its “All Apps” store Dialog offers over 3,000 services developed by more than 1,000 service providers. Rodrigo believes this is one of the largest in this part of the world. “We were a hit at the Telecom Application Developer Summit (TADS) 2014 because no one has done this before,” he says. “Most telcos have 200 apps. This is 3,000 apps in a couple of years.”

After Dialog built up its education programme, the number of apps developed grew quickly and Ideamart began to see returns. In the past 16 months, it grew at 20% month over month, which is significant in the industry.

GSM Mobile World Congress Awards recently recognized this contribution, when it named Dialog the Best Technology Enabler in the world, beating telco giants including Korea Telecom. “It’s because our strategy goes beyond the platform, beyond the technology and engages with entrepreneurs,” says Mendis.

Dialog provides developers with a higher-than-industry-standard revenue share since they stay involved with the product throughout. The industry standard used to be for operators to receive a 60% revenue slice, but Dialog flipped this on its head. Today, developers receive a 70% revenue share. “This way they get more money to invest in their product and hopefully build a better product that gets more customers,” Rodrigo says.

At first, Dialog provided only three APIs, like the SMS alerts/updates, but has now expanded this to six. The more APIs available, the more diverse and intricate the services that developers can build. Dialog intends to continue increasing the number of APIs, as well as its current 14 app templates.

The company has also started to see enterprises using Ideamart to solve business problems. Recognizing its potential, Dialog launched IdeaBiz, a platform dedicated to enterprise engagement. Through this, a company can share their services with outside consumers and monetize them. A developer, in turn, can use these published APIs, as well as Dialog’s APIs, to create new apps.

Exposing APIs to outside developers is a win-win situation for telcos in the long run. A telco’s core network isn’t always fully utilized. The more services a telco adds on, the more efficiently its network is used. Since the telco exposes its existing assets to these outside developers, this app development is also low-cost.

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