Smartphone apps are great, but – particularly if you live in a developing market – the data they need can be quite pricey. And in those countries, chances are you won’t be opting for the latest, top-of-the-line handset model either.
That’s why the idea of cloud-based app platforms is taking off. These platforms run their apps partly on the device, but the heavy lifting is done on some remote server. You’d think this would result in more rather than less data usage, but heavy compression – not dissimilar to that used by Amazon’s SilkBrowser or Opera Mini – takes care of that problem.
One such platform, Finland’s Blaast, launched in Indonesia in January, in partnership with local operator XL. Now it’s opened up customer and developer availability to the rest of the world as well, and also has a couple of other tidbits to share: two more as-yet-unnamed South-East Asian carrier partnerships have been struck (creating a total market of 76 million potential customers), and an Android version will be coming out by the end of the year.
Screenshot of Blaast homepageBlaast’s app, which is funded by investors including Skype’s founding engineers and ex-Nokian Pekka Vartiainen, can be used on more than 2,000 handset models, as all it really needs to run is Java.
However, the company does have competition in the form of the Australian biNu platform, which picked up $2m from Eric Schmidt’s Tomorrow Ventures this month, and the U.S.-based Peek.
Although all offer a similar kind of service, they diverge quite radically in their monetization strategies. Peek goes straight to the manufacturers of very low-cost phones, biNu makes money through its own virtual currency, and Blaast charges subscription fees (per day, week or month) that average out at around $1.50 per month.
For that fee you get access to more than 100 apps, including Twitter, Facebook, social games, Wikipedia, news and so on. That strategy appears to be working. Even before the fresh push announced this week, Blaast has attracted four million downloads and four thousand developers, who are writing apps tailored to the Indonesian market.
“Our approach has really struck a chord with developers as well as operators looking to extend their reach both geographically as well as to the low-end device segment,” CEO Joonas Hjelt said. “In fact, we are on course to support over 500 million Blaast-enabled feature phone by 2014.”
Now, about that Android version. Details are still sketchy – Blaast hasn’t yet said whether or not its roughly-30/70 revenue split with developers will extend into this market – but the company has an interesting pitch here.
Not only is there the data thing (a serious issue when data costs four or more times than it does in the U.S., relative to purchasing power) and the relatively low spec of the cheapest Android handsets, but Blaast reckons its subscription model has advantages over the traditional app store model.
This is an assertion that makes some sense when you consider its operator partnerships, and the fact that app stores tend to require credit cards. So developers who want to address these markets may want to take note.
As biNu suggested to Ryan recently, there’s around three to five years of play left for this kind of business, until smartphone economics even out for developing world customers.
But there’s a huge amount of money to be made in the meantime. And getting on board with the carriers, as Blaast is doing, seems a pretty smart way to make it.

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