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The death of unlimited data plans triggers a new era for developers

Generally speaking, most mobile applications are bandwidth hungry tools that consume a lot of data resources. This is particularly true of those which offer streaming services, or that can be left running in the background thanks to Apple’s newly released multi-tasking feature. This somewhat boundless ‘free for all’ has been fine until now, as most consumers were taking advantage of the unlimited data plans offered by the likes of O2, Orange, AT&T and other mobile operators. Their surfing, downloading and Tweeting therefore didn’t lead to any nasty shocks at the end of the billing period.

However, there has been something of a sea change this year and the days of the unlimited mobile data plan are well and truly ending – which is probably due to the introduction of Apple’s most bandwidth-hungry device, the iPhone 4. It seems that network operators are starting to crack under the strain, and as a result they are queuing up to announce new data capping regulations on mobile tariffs. While it’s true that unlimited data plans always had vague fair use policies stipulated in the small print, this is a pretty bold move that has captured headlines over the past few months. The rumour really has become a reality – whether it’s AT&T introducing a new 2GB cap on mobile devices, or Vodafone’s CEO comparing the company’s new tiered pricing model to freeway toll-booth or hotel service, as “every class of service must have its own price, and every customer must be able to pay for what they want.”

So, what does this all mean for the app market? As the industry begins to feel the squeeze, and smartphone users are forced to pay higher tariffs for medium to heavy usage or else be throttled into submission – it will be a real game changer for developers. They will have to change how they create applications. With data consumption becoming such a critical factor, developers will have to adapt their strategies to address the network efficiency of their apps if they are to succeed.

The shift from unlimited to capped data plans will no doubt lead to more users thinking twice about the applications they download and use. With the market becoming increasingly commoditized (how many dictionary or solitaire apps, can one possibly need), the price of apps has long been the key deciding factor. However, with the growing importance of gigabytes and heightened consumer awareness of bandwidth hungry apps, I think we could soon see efficiency emerge as a critical factor in the mobile app purchasing process. Premium priced ‘light’ apps that use less network resource might even be the way forward for developers looking to monetise these new reforms before everyone else catches on.