Sprint Nextel is offering developers some prominent real estate to feature their apps--if they're willing to pay for it.
The company said Friday it plans to launch a new auction system for developers, allowing them to bid for spots on the Sprint Zone application and the Sprint Tab found in the Android Market--two locations where new Sprint customers go to find recommendations for apps.
Sprint Zone is an app found on all Android smartphones that allows the user to check their usage, pay their bills, and get news from the carrier. It also has a section that highlights special apps. Likewise, the Sprint Tab is a section in the marketplace with more recommended apps.
The decision to sell placement on the Sprint Zone app and the Sprint Tab through this auction system puts it more inline with how online advertisements are purchased and placed and is fittingly called "Place Your Ad." But the change also marks a change in the philosophy behind which apps got the spotlight.
Previously, developers would submit their apps into a "pitch box," which would be reviewed by Sprint employees. A lucky few got chosen and were largely picked on merit. The process, however, was free, so financial considerations didn't factor into how an app got chosen.
With the new system, a developer with the right marketing budget could win the featured slot, which some customers may infer as having received Sprint's blessing as a recommended app.
I expressed my concerns to a Sprint executive, who was quick to assure me that this wasn't the case. Brian Smith, director of product management for the carrier, said the program actually opens up the possibilities for smaller developers because Sprint Zone and Sprint Tab will be able to more quickly rotate through different app recommendations, allowing for more slots.
"Previously, it was not a clear process," Smith said. "We decided it isn't best for the carrier to be choosing the apps, it's better to let the developers decide."
Since the program is so no, there's no way to gauge what an average bid would look like, Sprint told me.
Same quality control
In addition, the apps will still go through the same rigorous vetting process before they can participate in the program, he said. For instance, the apps must all have a security policy to protect the customer's privacy and personal information.
"The developers are pre-screened by us," Smith said. "We have control over it. These are the latest and greatest apps."
Smith dismissed the notion that a big developer could muscle through its competition with more money. He noted that previously, it was tough for Sprint employees to find apps, and the developers with large budgets could visit Sprint to show off their apps, which had a higher likelihood of getting featured. In comparison, the auction process is a more democratic option that allows smaller developers to participate, he said.
"We keep this continually fresh featured section for customers," he said. "That's what will drive value for customers: giving them choice."
Developers can also purchase spots tied to a specific time or theme. When thecame out, Sprint showed off the 3D-capable Spider-Man game in the featured section, only to have a number of gaming companies trot out their games to Sprint in an effort to get the spotlight. At that point, selecting apps was a manual process, so Sprint couldn't find a featured spot for those other games in time. Sprint plans on utilizing different themes in different times of the year.
But with the new auction platform, developers can bid on placement at a specific time, whether it's a movie launch or some other topical event, Smith said. Sprint can now more quickly set up a 3D-themed section if it wanted to showcase apps that took advantage of a new phone hitting the market.
Bidding for placement
Place Your Ad is an auction platform run by WMC Global, which has helped carriers monitor the quality of third-party content running on their phones and networks.
The online auction allows developers to place a bid on a specific time and placement. Once a developer has submitted their bid, they will get a response that shows how much time is left on the auction, and where they rank as a bidder (WMC Global doesn't reveal the identities of the other bidders). The auction runs for a week and wraps up with the winning bidder getting the placement.
It's a common model for online advertisements, said Robin Thompson, chief marketing officer for WMC Global. In this model, developers will only submit a bid that's as large as their marketing budget will allow, and let the auction decide whether it's enough.
"It's no longer a random event," Thompson said.
I also expressed my concerns to Thompson, who echoed many of Smith's sentiments. He argued that the auction process was more transparent than before, when Sprint would arbitrarily pick apps. Either way, he believes the high bar for quality should assuage any concerns.
"As long as the customer experience is good, it's not that different from before," he said.
The other major carriers offer their own preloaded applications, or even their own app stores. But none offer an auction system to win spots as featured apps.
"They're the first carrier to launch this, but they won't be the last," Thompson said.