Airtel is one of the county’s most popular service carriers and while they may not have a miniaturized Bulldog or a giggling white ‘thing’ as a brand ambassador, they’ve now got something much better. Airtel is the very first mobile service provider in the country to offer users across, the bar, an online application store.

App Central, as it’s called, is an addition to their Airtel Live mobile internet homepage and is definitely going to do great things for their popularity. If you’re thinking, ‘I don’t need this, my handset manufacturer has all I need from their app store’, sure you have that option. However Airtel’s offering is just a little bit different. Like other application stores, apps are segregated according to genre under headings like Entertainment, Social Networking, Utilities and so on. If you have something specific in mind a search option is also available. There’s no website and no syncing required – it’s all directly from your mobile for your mobile.

App Central has a simple yet easy to use UI and although it’s still a work in progress, they’ve already got a steady flow of mobile applications streaming in. The count is a little over 1300 apps right now and while that seems like a paltry sum, it’s only the beginning. On the plus side there’s support for over 550 handsets from manufacturers that include Nokia, RIM, Samsung, LG, HTC, Spice and Acer amongst others.

What’s the most appealing factor about App Central is that it’s an open platform for developers to create apps for any and all handsets and operating systems. The iTunes AppStore caters only to the iPhone, the Ovi Store is designed for Nokia Symbian handsets and AppWorld for BlackBerry devices. That’s to be expected of course as these are proprietary (to an extent) to the OEM. The benefit of having a service provider offer the similar apps entails that irrespective of what handset or OS you’re using, there will be software available for it. It’s a cross platform offering that will even work on ultra budget handsets that run on the JAVA OS.

There are still quite a few websites third party websites that allow you download content for all mobile operating systems but this is far more convenient. The system is designed to recognize the operating system and showcase apps that are appropriate for the same. In other words, you could be using a BlackBerry Curve 8900 or a BlackBerry clone like the Intex iSmart and if you see the same app on both handsets, rest assured, your handset will run it (tried and tested).

App Central also stores all the applications you’ve downloaded in a section called My Purchases. This makes it very convenient if you change your handset. Simply go to the My Purchase section at the bottom of the page and download and install all your apps, it reduces the time of having to look for them all over again. If you’d previously paid for an app there’s no additional charge for downloading it again.

There’s no credit facility set up yet although I was told that this too is a work in progress. The billing system is simple and once again very convenient. Any app downloaded with a price tag, will simply be added to your bill or deducted from your available pre-paid talk-time. The only necessary charge would be airtime rates for GPRS usage unless you’re on an unlimited plan, which means a free app will be totally free. Applications are available for as low as Rs. 5 and go upwards of Rs. 25.

Airtel is also working on a downloadable version of App Central so you won’t need to access it through a web browser. It’ll be so much easier with a simple icon in your menu. App Central is also aiming to offer local and regional apps for customers across the country.

So even though it may not be at par with some of the OEM’s stores just yet, it will be, given time. The only downside to App Central as of right now is the fact that it doesn’t have its very own mobile application. Other than that, this is a step in the right direction and it’s only a matter of time before the others follow suit. In fact Reliance already has plans in motion whereas Vodafone could simply port their app store from Europe and make it India-friendly.

There was just one other issue. While I’ve been testing the app store for a couple of days now, it’s been a sincerely pleasant experience till, for some strange reason it refused to register any of the handsets I used. I kept receiving an error message to the effect of –

and was completely unable to access the store altogether. I’m not entirely sure what went wrong as it seemed like the entire Airtel office was facing some sort of crisis as I was unable to speak with anyone. I’m hoping this is not permanent for whatever reason.

To access Airtel App Central, Airtel mobile customers can visit Airtel Live on their mobile phone and scroll down to App Central or SMS app to 54321 (toll free) to receive the URL.

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