Telecom geeks (like me) may know Ericsson as the mammoth company that supplies phone network equipment to carriers. But did you know it has a burgeoning app following as well?
That was news to me as I sat down with a few executives from Ericsson while at Mobile World Congress. But the company has long fostered a small, but healthy, community of developers, and actually offers application programming interface tools that allow better access to network capabilities.
While Ericsson's bread and butter remains telecom gear, the company has worked to spread its wings into different areas. It's all part of Ericsson's vision of a "networked society," something its management team consistently and excitedly talks about.
App development plays a nice role in that vision. Ericsson's consumer-behavior expert, Mikael Eriksson Bjorling, believes there's a shift in where apps are getting made, and things are moving away from people with technical expertise. Whether it's consumers using platforms to build their own apps,, or individuals partnering with others with the technical know-how, innovation is starting to come from different corners.
"Ordinary people are starting to do this," Bjorling said. "It's the idea that we're becoming producers, as opposed to just consumers."
Ericsson already boasts a network of 25,000 developers, and there have been 4,000 apps developed using the company's APIs. The apps run on various platforms, including iOS, Android, and Symbian, as well as on desktops and online.
Last year, one individual used Ericsson's APIs to build an app that tracked potholes in Moscow, and posted the trouble spots to the authorities for repairs. In a matter of weeks, other people began to weigh in and point out potholes. Since then, 12,000 holes have been identified, and 2,000 have been fixed.
Ericsson, meanwhile, tested a concept in which an app was used to track large tanks at a fish farm, measuring the oxygen saturation, temperature, pH value, and so. Another concept app was a remote health-diagnostic program that was being tested in India, allowing doctors in other regions to check in on the health of a patient in another city or country.
Stefan Hedelius, vice president of marketing and communications for Ericsson, said that eventually it would take him only one day to build an app--and he's not technically savvy in this area.
Like other large companies, Ericsson holds application competitions, with one big one each year. The company also participates in regional competitions, and last week named some winners for its "Apps for Africa" contest, which it runs with Sony (previously Sony Ericsson).
The winning app from Senegal came from a team called Senmobile, which designed an Android program that uses crowdsourcing to determine prices for fish at a market. The intent is to stabilize and lower prices at local markets.
Another app, called Funkies from AfroSilicone, notifies users of upcoming events and lets them reserve tickets through a mobile money partner. It also lets them share details on social networks.
The winners will move on to Ericsson's larger global app contest.
While not the sexiest company by any stretch, Ericsson is a vital supplier to many people's wireless service. Its equipment powers the 4G LTE service offered by Verizon Wireless and AT&T, and the company actually manages Sprint Nextel's network, with its own facility at Sprint Nextel's Overland Park, Kan., headquarters.
Ericsson is eager to drive app adoption because it means more traffic on wireless and wired networks, which leads to more demand for Ericsson's telecommunications equipment.
In terms of Ericsson's vision for apps, Hedalius believes there will be even more app stores down the line. Beyond the mobile ones, he expects there to be apps for TVs and other devices. That's already starting to happen, with Samsung touting the success of its own TV app store, and Microsoft creating an app store for Windows 8.
"We're very much for driving the industry," Hedalius said.