AHEAD OF THE CURVE: Code, debug, distribute

AHEAD OF THE CURVE: Code, debug, distribute

I've long thought that there should be a build step in Visual Studio or Eclipse called "distribute". After your code is validated, it burns itself to CD, writes its own manual, prints itself a four-colour box and drives itself to CompUSA. Or, if you prefer quality to volume, your software drops itself into the PowerPoint decks and briefcases of the intimidating consultants that serve America's top six commercial accounts.

Even with shareware, the secure delivery of software to buyers is the developer's problem, and not just for small shops. Large ISVs that target new markets face the same problem. There is software you never get to see, or that you see several months late, because its creators couldn't navigate the dilapidated marketing, delivery and payment road fast enough. There is little difference between the distribution and payment process for Garden Weasels and commercial software.

One attempt at an end-to-end solution, though crafted for a narrow niche, portends a happier day for the marketing impaired. Nokia's Preminet service extends the vendor's wireless application platform, so that shipping code takes on a more literal meaning. Develop your app, get it validated by Nokia, and they will take care of cataloguing, distributing and receiving payment. If you're willing to part with a reasonable margin, you can upload your code to Preminet and wait for the checks to come in.

This isn't a Yahoo storefront approach, which would be useless for selling software. Preminet takes the considerable complexity of the wireless distribution and payment network into consideration. When you upload your app, it's added to the Preminet master catalogue. Wireless operators choose apps from the larger catalogue to offer to their subscribers. The subscriber searches for apps directly from his or her phone. When a purchase is made, the operator creates a secure link to the device, sends the software along with a signature guaranteeing its origin, and posts the amount of the purchase to the subscriber's wireless services bill.

That's pretty spiffy, but notice the process is almost all about the operator and the subscriber. If the operator chooses, Nokia's name is never mentioned in the application selection and purchase process.

Nokia makes its money by quietly splitting the profit margin with the operators. But it's not just the catalogue and the vendor community that makes, say, T-Mobile figure that Nokia is worth paying. After all, Preminet isn't the only way to get software to mobile devices.

Nokia made Preminet worth buying into by delivering the complete client-software-distribution back end - from catalogue browsing to secure delivery to payment - to operators. It's a cheap plug-and-play deal, which has become the only way to get operators to add services. Developers not only get their products seen and paid for but maintain ownership of the code. Any software start-up shopping for distributors knows how rare that is.

Whether Preminet catches on or not, my gut tells me that you'll see automated, end-to-end distribution of specialised third-party applications elsewhere.

Bridging the gap between development and delivery is important across the board. It's nice that you can get a box of software shipped overnight, but it's insane that it took three months to make the packaging and stock the warehouses. That is, if you find the software you want in the first place.

Tom Yager is technical director of the InfoWorld Test Center.

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