Tim Cook just handed the keys to the Apple App Store to Senior VP Phill Schiller. Will Schiller bring order and intelligibility to Apple’s app jungle?
The modern smartphone is 7 years old and yet, when it comes to designing mobile applications, we are still barely scratching the surface. Today we’ll see how harnessing technology already embedded in a phone can unleash great potential.
A mobile news app has simple goals: Capture and retain reader attention, and repeat the process, several times a day. Pretty straightforward. But not that simple in the real world. For a news provider, the smartphone screen is the the most challenging environment ever seen. There, chances are that a legacy media or a pure-player will find itself in direct competition, not only with the usual players in its field, but also with Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram and scores of gaming applications. Distraction is just one icon away; any weakness in functional or graphic design can be lethal.
Hence the questions for publishers: What type of news should they put on their mobile apps, what formats, what about images and video, sharing, curation, connections to other apps? Should they be selective or stuff as much as they can in their app? Or should they build easily digestible news blocks à la Circa? Or put more emphasis on a nice, small package of news items, as Yahoo News Digest brilliantly does? Or — the last trend –design an app for fast reading, like The New York Times NYT Now? (I must say, NYT Now, is my favorite news application — and I tested many; it delivers exactly what its promises: a constantly updated news stream, sending back to NYT’s stories, and well curated picks from the web. At the same time, Les Echos, the business media I work for, released LesEchosLive, an app also built around a single vertical “rail” of news with compact stories that expand and collapse as needed — readers seems to like it a lot…)
But… Good as they are, these forays into mobile news consumption are not enough. The mobile tsunami has just begun to unfurl. Soon, it might flood a solid half, then two thirds of all news pageviews — and we can expect further acceleration after the release of the next batch of iPhones: their larger screens will provide more attractive reading.
If mobile is to become the dominant vector for news, retaining readers will be much more challenging than it is on a PC or tablet (though the latter tends to engage readers 10x or sometimes 20x more). A news app needs to be steered with precision. Today’s digital marketing tools allow publishers to select multiple parameters monitoring the use of a application: They can measure how long the app is used, when, for how long, why and where people tend to drop it, what kind of news they like, if they hit a paywall and give up, and why they do so, etc. Similarly, when an app remains unopened for too long, smart tools can pinpoint the user and remind her of the product’s benefits. These tools are as good as the people who (a) set the parameters, (b) monitor them on a daily basis, and (c) take appropriate action such as launching a broadside of super-targeted emails. But these are incremental measures, they don’t breed exponential growth in viewership (and revenue).
Why not envision a few more steps forward and take advantage of technologies now embedded in every smartphone? A mobile phone is filled with features that, well directed, can significantly improve user experience and provide reams of usage data.
Imagine a news feed natively produced in different formats: long, short, capsules of text, with stills and videos in different sizes and lengths. Every five minutes or so, the feed is updated.
After a while, your smartphone has recorded your usage patterns in great detail. It knows when you read the news and, more importantly, under what conditions. Consider Google Now, the search engine’s intelligent personal assistant: It knows when you are at work or at home and, at the appropriate moment, it will estimate your transit time and suggest an itinerary based on your commute patterns; or take Google Location History, a spectacular — and a bit creepy — service for smartphones (also tablets and laptops) that visualizes your whereabouts. Both Google services generate datasets that can be used to tailor your news consumption. Not only does your phone detect when you are on the move, but it can anticipate your motions.
Based on these data sets, it becomes possible to predict your most probable level of attention at certain moments of the day and to take in account network conditions. Therefore, a predictive algorithm can decide what type of news format you’ll be up for at 7:30am when you’re commuting (quickly jumping from one cell tower to another with erratic bandwidth) and switch for faster reads than at 8:00pm, when you’re supposed to be home, or staying in a quiet place equipped with a decent wifi, and receptive to richer formats.
By anticipating your moves, your phone can quickly download heavy media such as video while networks conditions are fine and saving meager bandwidth for essential updates. In addition, the accelerometer and internal gyroscope can tell a lot about reading conditions: standing-up in a crowded subway or waiting for your meeting to start.
By poring over such data, analytics specialists can understand what is read, watch and heard, at what time of the day and in which environment. Do users favor snippets when commuting? What’s the maximum word-length for a story to be read in the subway without being dropped, and what length is more likely to induce future reading? What’s the optimal duration for a video? What kind of news package fits the needs and attention for someone on the move? What sort of move by the way? Motion and vibration for a car are completely different than the ones from the Bay Area transit system or London’s Tube. Accelerometers and motion sensors can tell that for sure — and help to decide if it’s better to serve the smartphone owner with a clever podcast while she is likely to be stuck in her car for the next 50 minutes on Highway 101 heading to San Jose (as revealed by her trajectories and GPS patterns of the last few months) or favor text and preloaded videos for BART commuters between Oakland and San Francisco.
This approach, based on a large spectrum of patterns analytics, can enormously increase readers’ appetite for news. This is yet another reason for media companies to lean more and more on the technology side. Until now, with very few exceptions, legacy media have been slow to move into that direction. As someone who loves good journalism and smart news formats, the last thing I want to see is newcomers providing cheap editorial succeed at capturing people’s attention only because they’ll have been first to harness these technologies. We’ve had that experience on the web, let’s not make the same mistake twice.
With one million titles and no human guides, the Apple App Store has become incomprehensible for mere mortals. A simple solution exists: curation by humans instead of algorithms.
You know the numbers better than anyone — I don’t need to quote them to you — but we all know that the iOS App Store is a veritable gold mine. Unfortunately, the App Store isn’t being mined in the best interests of Apple’s customers and developers, nor, in the end, in the interests of the company itself.
The App Store may be a gold mine, but it’s buried in an impenetrable jungle.
Instead of continuing with this complaint, I’ll offer a suggestion: Let humans curate the App Store.
Instead of using algorithms to sort and promote the apps that you permit on your shelves, why not assign a small group of adepts to create and shepherd an App Store Guide, with sections such as Productivity, Photography, Education, and so on. Within each section, this team of respected but unnamed (and so “ungiftable”) critics will review the best-in-class apps. Moreover, they’ll offer seasoned opinions on must-have features, UI aesthetics, and tips and tricks. A weekly newsletter will identify notable new titles, respond to counter-opinions, perhaps present a developer profile, footnote the occasional errata and mea culpa…
The result will be a more intelligible App Store that makes iOS users happier.
If I’m so convinced, why don’t I drive it myself? You might recall that I offered to do so — for free — in a brief lobby conversation at the All Things D conference a couple of years ago. The ever-hovering Katie Cotton gave me the evil eye and that was the end of the exchange.
I look back on my years at Apple with a certain affection, and would be happy to repay the company for what it did for me, so, yes, I would do it for free… but I can’t bankroll a half dozen tech writers, nor can I underwrite the infrastructure costs. And it won’t pay for itself: As an independent publication (or, more likely, an app) an App Store Guide isn’t financially viable. We know it’s next to impossible to entice people to pay for information and, as the Monday Note proves, I have no appetite for becoming a nano-pennies-per-pageview netwalker.
So, the App Store Guide must be an Apple publication, a part of its ecosystem.
PS: We both understand that ideas are just ideas, they’re not actual products. As Apple has shown time and again — and most vividly with the 30-year old tablet idea vs. the actual iPad — it’s the product that counts. If you see the wisdom of a human-curated Apple App Guide, and I hope you do, I will not seek credit.
Regular Monday Note readers will remember I already tilted at the App Store curation windmill: Why Apple Should Follow Michelin and the tongue-in-cheek Google’s Red Guide to the Android App Store. Who knows, the third time might be the charm.
To play devil’s advocate, let’s consider a developer’s bad reaction to an Apple App Guide review. Let’s say MyNewApp gets a thumbs down in the Productivity section of the Guide. I’m furious; I write Tim or Eddy Cue an angry letter, I huffs and puff, threaten to take my business elsewhere — to Windows Phone, for example. I exhort my friends, family, and satisfied customers to contribute to a letter-writing campaign…
Why risk this sort of backlash? Particularly when today’s formula of “featuring” apps seems to be working:
But…does it really work all that well? Today’s way of choosing this app over that one already upsets the non-chosen. Further, the stars used to “measure” user feedback are known to be less than reliable. A thoughtful, detailed, well-reasoned review would serve customers and developers alike.
This leads us to the Guide’s most important contribution to the app universe: Trust. An Apple-sponsored App Guide can be trusted for a simple reason: The company’s one and only motive is to advance its users’ interests by making the App Store more trustworthy, more navigable. As for developers, they can rely on a fair and balanced (seriously) treatment of their work. The best ones will be happier and the “almost best” others will see an opportunity to get their improved work noticed in a future review cycle.
There is also the temptation to shrug the suggestion off with the customary ‘Don’t fix it, it’s not broken.’ Sorry, no, it is broken. See what Marco Arment, a successful Apple developer, says on his blog [emphasis mine]:
“Apple’s App Store design is a big part of the problem. The dominance and prominence of “top lists” stratifies the top 0.02% so far above everyone else that the entire ecosystem is encouraged to design for a theoretical top-list placement that, by definition, won’t happen to 99.98% of them. Top lists reward apps that get people to download them, regardless of quality or long-term use, so that’s what most developers optimize for. Profits at the top are so massive that the promise alone attracts vast floods of spam, sleaziness, clones, and ripoffs.”
“Quality, sustainability, and updates are almost irrelevant to App Store success and usually aren’t rewarded as much as we think they should be, and that’s mostly the fault of Apple’s lazy reliance on top lists instead of more editorial selections and better search.
The best thing Apple could do to increase the quality of apps is remove every top list from the App Store.”
We can now turn to my own biases.
Why do I care? Good question, I’m now 70 and could just sit in zazen and enjoy the show. And there’s a lot of show to enjoy: The tech industry is more exciting now than when I was a rookie at HP France in 1968. But in today’s app stores, the excitement fades — and I’m not just talking about Apple, Android’s Google Play is every bit as frustrating. I see poorly exploited gold mines where quantity obscures quality and the lack of human curation ruins the Joy of Apps. There are caves full of riches but, most of of the time, I can’t find a path to the mother lode.
Is it a lack of courage in anticipation of imagined protests? Hunger sated by too much success too soon? An addiction to solving all problems by algorithm instead of by human judgment?
I hope its none of these, and that we’ll soon see a newsletter/blog and a reasoned, regularly enriched guide that leads us to the better App Store titles.
Last week, we spoke about the preeminence of mobile applications. Not all readers agree, of course, but I found more data to support the finding; among many sources, the remarkable Reuters Institute Digital News Report (PDF here) is worth reading:
47% of smartphone users say they use mainly apps for news
According to the report, this figure has risen by 6 percentage points in just one year. By contrast, 38% of the news consumption is made via a browser — which is losing ground: -4% in just a year.
The trend is likely to accelerate when taking in account demography: On smartphones, the most active groups are the 18-24s and the 35-44s; on tablets the most active group is the 45-54 segment.
Platform usage varies in accordance to local market share, but when it come to paying for news, Apple leads the game:
iOS users are x1.5 likely to pay for news in the US
and x2 likely to pay in the UK than Android or other users
Here is the bad part, though. Again based on the Reuters report, the use of smartphones does narrow the range of news sources. More than ever, the battle for the first screen is crucial.
Across the ten countries surveyed,
37% of users rely on a single news source
vs. 30% for PC users
In the UK, the trend is even stronger with 55% of mobile users relying a single news source. This goes along with good news for those who still defend original news production: mobile news consumption is quite focused on legacy media. The BBC app crushes the competition with 67% of respondents saying they used the app the previous week, vs. 25% for Sky, MSN and Yahoo are trailing with respectively 2% and 7%.
If you want to survey a healthy digital news market, go to Denmark
A Viking logo (from the TV Series) as viewed by the Brand New blog;
note the ancient reference to technology…
Not only does Denmark rank among the best countries to live and develop a business in, but when it comes to digital news, it leads the pack in several of ways:
— Despite the digital tsunami, Denmark retains many strong media brands. As a result, legacy media are the prime way for accessing digital news. And since Danish media did well embracing new platforms, they enjoyed similarly success on social, funneling readers to their properties.
The opposite holds for France and Germany where the transition is much slower; in those countries digital users rely much more on search to reach news brands. Two side effects ensue: News readers are more accidental and therefore generate a much lower ARPU; and the greater reliance on Google is problematic (hence the call to arms in France and Germany against the search engine giant.)
— Because of the strength of its traditional media brands, the Denmark news market has left very little oxygen to pure players: They weigh only 10% of weekly digital news, vs. 39% in the US and 46% in Japan were legacy media have been severely hit.
— Danes are the heaviest users of both smartphones and tablets to access news.
— They use mobile apps more than anywhere else: 19%, vs. 15% for US and 12% for Germany.
— They are mostly Apple users : 58% say they use an iOS device to access news in the last week (vs. 28% in Germany), hence a better ARPU for mobile publishers.
— Danish news consumers generously overlap their devices way more than in any country. 79% use a PC, 61% a smartphone and 39% a tablet. Only 24% use only a PC for news. In Japan by contrast, 58% admit using only a PC for their news diet; up there, the use of smartphone and tablet to access information is respectively one half and one third of Denmark.
— In Danish public transportation, smartphones has overtaken print as the main news vector by 69% vs. 21% of the usage.
We all know where to seek inspiration for our digital news strategies.
Apple does the right thing when striving to keep its App Store free from promotional trickery – but fails to shed light on the process and, as a result, damages its reputation.
Earlier this month, the Apple App Store removed the popular AppGratis application from its shelves. Then, last week, the App Store censors delivered a decisive blow by suppressing AppGratis’ push notifications to installed apps.
Apple’s reason for the ban: “… the app circumvented App Store rules preventing applications promoting other apps and direct marketing.”
AppGratis CEO Simon Dawlat took to the airwaves, loudly protesting his innocence. The aggrieved entrepreneur criticized Apple’s arbitrary and inconsistent approval process and “out of the blue” removal of AppGratis. He launched an online petition that gathered 571K signatures in just a few hours. He convinced Fleur Pellerin, France’s Minister of Digital Technologies, to run to the wounded company’s bedside and join the protest. Minister Pellerin added a bit of saber-rattling, calling Apple’s actions “brutal” and hinting at plans to ask the EU to examine the takedown.
But then the PR tide turned. An AppGratis document leaked to Business Insider by a “source in the developer community” hints at the company’s unspoken business model: AppGratis will raise your app’s rating in the App Store – for a fee.
Specifically, AppGratis gives developers an estimate of where in Apple’s App Store rankings an App can land based on how much the developer is willing to pay… [The] document shows AppGratis estimates a ~$300,000 buy will land an app in the top five slot in the US version of the App Store.
$300k is a lot of money for a small app developer, but the promise is that the higher ranking will result in increased revenue that will more than cover AppGratis’ “service fee”.
Before the e-dust could settle, Dawlat posted a long-winded blog entry that I assume was meant as a rebuttal. Here’s an excerpt:
People have “accused us” of gaming the top. But the reality is that with or without the “rankings,” our community will still drive millions of installs for the apps we feature. Independently from the App Store. We have never based our business on ranking exposure, because we’ve always expected Apple to chime in at some point, and change that.
He then went on to announce AppGratis’ “crazy cool” old-yet-new direction [emphasis mine]:
And even more exciting, we’re back to our roots. A crazy cool daily newsletter with millions of subscribers, that will very soon be complemented by the newest and nicest HTML5 WebApp you’ll ever see. Two things we fully own, and that no one can take away from us. So when I stated a week ago that the reports of our death were greatly exaggerated, I wasn’t kidding. Not kidding at all. AppGratis is just getting started.
Because from the bottom of our hearts, we know we add value to this whole ecosystem.
And we intend to keep doing just that.
To shed light on this complicated situation, let’s use an analogy. And since this about a French company, Apple will be represented by Carrefour, the hypermarché giant — something like Walmart, but less polite. If you ask to have your groceries packed up, the cashier throws a plastic bag at you and tells you to do it yourself. You’ll be playing Simon Dawlat.
You approach Carrefour with your unique line of heirloom yogurts made from free range goat milk. It’s an interesting product, but is Carrefour obligated to give you shelf space? Of course not. The store may be inelegant and the staff is rude, but the company has its standards. Carrefour offers to take you on if you agree to its rules concerning shelf displays and promotional activities.
One day, a store manager notices the coupons you’ve enclosed in your yogurt packs. These coupons promote other products that Carrefour stocks, offered at lower prices when purchased on-line. When asked about it, you finally admit that, yes, some of the other manufacturers pay you to include their coupons with your yogurt. Carrefour management throws a plastic bag at you and tells you to pack up and go home. Their store, their rules.
(The analogy is both transparent and flawed. There’s no perfect physical retail analogue for AppGratis’ virtual schtick — getting paid to bubble an app up the App Store rankings. And the App Store doesn’t have a great real-world analogue, either. The App Store’s raison d’être is to make iPhone and iPads more valuable; it’s not a business in itself. But you get the idea.)
To touch on the obvious, Apple isn’t obligated to publish AppGratis or any other app, regardless of a developer’s adherence to the rules.
As for the rules themselves, I read through the App Store Review Guidelines, bracing myself for Apple’s usual hauteur. What I found was a personable, (mostly) well-written document that addresses a number of complicated issues while (mostly) avoiding the opaque legalese found in the licensing agreements we all stopped reading long ago.
The rule that’s most pertinent to the AppGratis case is this [emphasis mine]:
If you attempt to cheat the system (for example, by trying to trick the review process, steal data from users, copy another developer’s work, or manipulate the ratings) your Apps will be removed from the store and you will be expelled from the developer program.
There seems little doubt that AppGratis crossed this line: Its business model is precisely one of artificially enhancing an app’s ratings.
This isn’t a new issue. In September 2012, Apple added a clause (section 2.25) to the Guidelines:
Apps that display Apps other than your own for purchase or promotion in a manner similar to or confusing with the App Store will be rejected.
A good deal of discussion ensued, most of which made clear what awaited AppGratis and others such as FreeAppADay, AppoDay, Daily App Dream, and App Shopper. As explained in a PocketGamer post [emphasis mine]:
The wording is typically vague, but clause 2.25 appears to give Apple carte blanche to put any app that promotes titles from a different developer out of action.
At the moment, we understand Apple’s likely prime targets are pure app promotion services, such as (but not necessarily including) FreeAppADay, AppoDay, AppGratis, Daily App Dream and AppShopper, amongst others.
That clause 2.25 was introduced more than six months ago puts Dawlat’s claim that Apple acted “out of the blue” and Minister Pellerin’s accusation of “brutality” in a different light: Dawlat had ample notice of Apple’s intent.
(Minister Pellerin might now be wondering if her staff performed sufficient research before letting her run to Dawlat’s rescue…or maybe not. Half-baked technopolicy is becoming politics-as-usual in France. Last year, the newly-elected government ran afoul of high-tech entrepreneurs when it announced legislation that would greatly increase taxes on their equity gains, only to beat a hasty half-retreat, leaving the tax question muddier than ever. Perhaps the AppGratis snafu was perceived as an opportunity to earn back some of the lost credit, especially when portraying the situation as a French David vs. an American Goliath.)
Ultimately, Dawlat’s cry of foul will probably be seen as disingenuous and tiresome, not to mention a wasteful distraction… Do the critics of the App Store approval process consider the noise level that approvers must endure? To get to the current 700,000 apps, the company has to scrutinize more than 3,000 new entries a week plus revisions of existing apps. Mistakes will be made. Some apps will be approved only to be yanked when their scheme becomes obvious. Developers will be incensed, and Apple, sensibly, has anticipated the backlash:
If your app is rejected, we have a Review Board that you can appeal to. If you run to the press and trash us, it never helps.
So it’s case closed, right?
Not quite. There remains the problem of perception.
I can’t provide a link to the Guidelines in this Note because the document is only accessible to dues-paying developers (of which I am one). There’s nothing mysterious, secret, or dangerous about these words, they provide no competitive insight that could work to Apple’s disadvantage. Charging a developer just to read the rules gains nothing, and contributes to Apple’s negative image. Attempting to keep them out of the public eye is insulting and futile – developers freely leak and comment on the content.
Far worse is that Apple appears to have a policy (with very few allowances) of refusing to publicly explain its App Store decisions. I realize that some judgments are ineffable, matters of taste, as explained in the Guidelines:
We will reject Apps for any content or behavior that we believe is over the line. What line, you ask? Well, as a Supreme Court Justice once said, “I’ll know it when I see it”. And we think that you will also know it when you cross it.
Apple isn’t wrong to reserve the right to make such decisions. Although insiders may depict the company as obsessive control freaks, “normal” customers seem to appreciate Apple’s efforts to keep the App Store a Clean, Well-Lighted Place.
But maintaining a stony silence when imposing a judgment call is a bad choice, it distances developers, and it inevitably triggers controversy. A few words of explanation would invite respect for having courageously taken a difficult stance.
As already discussed in a recent Monday Note (Apple is Losing The War – Of Words), I find the company’s refusal to engage in more public debate harmful and disrespectful. While the AppGratis incident in itself isn’t overly important, it could be an opportunity for Apple to reconsider its ways.
As seen last week in Barcelona, the mobile industry is red hot. The media sector will have to work harder to capture its share of that growth.
The 2013 edition of the Mobile World Congress held last week in Barcelona was as large as the biggest auto-show in the world: 1500 exhibitors and a crowd of 72,000 attendees from 200 countries. The mobile industry is roaring like never before. But the news media industry lags and will have to fight hard to stay in the game. Astonishingly, only two media companies deigned to show up: Pearson with its huge education business accounting for 75% of its 2012 revenue (vs. 7% for its Financial Times unit); and Agence France-Presse which is entering the customized application market. No other big media brand in sight, no trade organizations either. Apparently, the information sector is about to miss the mobile train.
Let’s begin with data that piqued my interest, from AT Kearney surveys for the GSM Association.
Individual mobile subscribers: In 2012, the worldwide number of mobile subscribers reached 3.2 billion. A billion subscribers was added in the last four years. As the world population is expected to grow by 1.1% per year between 2008 and 2017, the mobile sector enjoyed a 8.3% CAGR (Compound Annual Growth Rate) for the 2008-2012 period. For the 2012 – 2017 interval the expected CAGR is 4.2%. The 4 billion subscribers mark will be passed in 2018. By that time, 80% of the global population will be connected via a mobile device.
The rise of the machines. When machine-to-machine (M2M) connections are taken into account, growth becomes even more spectacular: In 2012, there were 6.8 billion active SIM cards, 3% of them being M2M connections. In 2017, there will be 9.7 billion active SIM cards and the share of M2M connections will account for 13% with almost 1.3 billion devices talking to each other.
The Asia-Pacific region will account for half of the connection growth, both for individual subscriptions and M2M.
We’ll now turn to stats that could benefit the media industry.
Mobile growth will be mostly driven by data usage. In 2012, the volume of data exchanged through mobile devices amounted to .9 exabytes per month (1 exabyte = 1bn gigabytes), this is more than the all preceding years combined! By 2017, it is expected to reach 11.2 exabytes, that’s a 66% CAGR!
A large part of this volume will come from the deployment of 4G (LTE) networks. Between now and 2017, deploying LTE technology will result in a 4X increase in connection speeds.
For the 2012 – 2017 period, bandwidth distribution is expected to grow as follows:
M2M:......... +89% Video:....... +75% Gaming:...... +62% Other data:...+55% File sharing: +34% VoIP:........ +34%
Obviously, the huge growth of video streaming (+75%) points to a great opportunity for the media industry as users will tend to watch news capsules on-the-go in the same way they today look at a mobile web sites or an app (these two will be part of the 55% annual growth).
The growing social mobility will also be an issue for news media. Here are the key figures for today in active mobile users
Facebook:...680m Twitter:....120m LinkedIn:....46m Foursquare:..30m
Still, as important as it is, social usage only accounts for 17 minutes per day, vs. 25 minutes for internet browsing and a mere 12 minutes for voice calls. Most likely, the growth of video will impact the use of social networks as Facebook collects more and more videos directly uploaded from smartphones.
A large part of this growth will be driven by the rise of inexpensive smartphones. Last week in Barcelona, the largest stand was obviously Samsung’s. But a huge crowd also gathered around Huawei or ZTE showing sophisticated Android-powered smartphones — at much lower prices. This came as a surprise to many westerners like me who don’t have access to these Chinese devices. And for emerging markets, Firefox is coming with a HTML5 operating system that looked surprisingly good.
In years to come, the growing number of operating systems, screen sizes and features will be a challenge. (At the MWC, the trend was definitely in favor of large screens, read this story in Engadget.) An entire hall was devoted to applications — and software aimed at producing apps in a more standardized, economical fashion. As a result, we might see three approaches to delivering contents on mobile:
– The simplest way will be mobile sites based on HTML5 and responsive design; more features will be embedded in web applications.
– The second stage will consist of semi-native apps, quickly produced using standardized tools, allowing fast updates and adaptations to a broad range of devices.
– The third way will involve expensive deep-coded native apps aimed at supporting sophisticated graphics; they will mainly be deployed by the gaming industry.
In upcoming Monday Notes, we will address two majors mobile industry trends not tied to the media industry: Connected Living (home-car-city), a sector likely to account for most machine-to-machine use; and digital education taking advantage of a happy combination of more affordable handsets and better bandwidth.
As they approach the one million apps mark, smartphone and tablet app stores leave users stranded in thick, uncharted forests. What are Google and Apple waiting?
Last week, Google made the following announcement:
Mountain View, February 24th, 2013 — As part of an industry that owes so much to Steve Jobs, we remember him on this day, the 58th anniversary of his birth, with great sadness but also with gratitude. Of Steve’s many achievements, we particularly want to celebrate the Apple App Store, the venerable purveyor of iPhone software.
Introduced in 2008, the App Store was an obvious and natural descendant of iTunes. What wasn’t obvious or foreseen was that the App Store would act as a catalyst for an entire market segment, that it would metamorphose the iPhone from mere smartphone to app phone. This metamorphosis provided an enormous boost to the mobile industry worldwide, a boost that has benefitted us all and Google more than most.
But despite the success of the app phone there’s no question that today’s mobile application stores, our own Google Play included, are poorly curated. No one seems to be in charge, there’s no responsibility for reviewing and grading apps, there’s no explanation of the criteria that goes into the “Editors’ Picks”, app categorization is skin deep and chaotic.
Today, we want to correct this fault and, at the same time, pay homage to Steve’s elegant idea by announcing a new service: The Google Play Red Guide. Powered by Google’s human and computer resources, the Red Guide will help customers identify the trees as they wander through the forest of Android apps. The Red Guide will provide a new level of usefulness and fun for users — and will increase the revenue opportunities for application developers.
With the Google Play Red Guide, we’ll bring an end to the era of the uncharted, undocumented, and poorly policed mobile app store.
The Red Guide takes its name from another great high-tech company, Michelin. At the turn of the 20th century, Michelin saw it needed to promote automotive travel in order to stimulate tire sales. It researched, designed and published great maps, something we can all relate to. To further encourage travel, Michelin published Le Guide Rouge, a compendium of hotels and restaurant. A hundred years later, the Michelin Red Guide is still considered the world’s standard; its inspectors are anonymous and thus incorruptible, their opinions taken seriously. Even a single star award (out of three) can put an otherwise unknown restaurant on the map — literally.
Our Red Guide will comprise the following:
– “Hello, World”, a list of indispensable apps for the first time Android customer (or iPhone apostate), with tips, How-To guides, and FAQs.
– “Hot and Not”. Reviews of new apps and upgrades — and the occasional downgrade.
– “In Our Opinion”. This is the heart of the Guide, a catalogue of reviews written by a select group of Google Play staff who have hot line access to Google’s huge population of in-house subject matter experts. The reviews will be grouped into sections: Productivity, e-Learning, Games, Arts & Creativity, Communication, Food & Beverage, Healthcare, Spirituality, Travel, Entertainment, Civics & Philanthropy, Google Glass, with subcategories for each.
Our own involvement in reviewing Android apps is a novel — perhaps even a controversial — approach, but it’s much needed. We could have taken the easy path: Let users and third-parties provide the reviews. But third party motives are sometimes questionable, their resources quickly exhausted. And with the Android Store inventory rapidly approaching a million titles, our users deserve a trustworthy guide, a consistent voice to lead them to the app that fits.
We created the Red Guide because we care about our Android users, we want them to “play safe” and be productive, and we feel there’s no better judge of whether an application will degrade your phone’s performance or do what it claims than the people who created and maintain the Android framework. For developers, we’re now in a position to move from a jungle to a well-tended garden where the best work will be recognized, and the not-so-great creations will be encouraged to raise their game.
We spent a great deal of time at Google identifying exactly the right person to oversee this delicate proposition…and now we can reveal the real reason why Google’s Motorola division hired noted Macintosh evangelist, auteur, and investor Guy Kawasaki as an advisor: Guy will act as the Editor in Chief of the Google Play Red Guide.
With Guy at the helm, you can expect the same monkish dedication and unlimited resources we deployed when we created Google Maps.
As we welcome everyone to the Google Play Red Guide, we again thank Steve Jobs for his leadership and inspiration. Our algorithms tell us he would have approved.
The Red Guide is an open product and will be published on the Web at AppStoreRedguide.com as well as in e-book formats (iBookstore and Kindle formats pending approval) for open multi-platform enjoyment.
No need to belabor the obvious, you’ve already figured out that this is all a fiction. Google is no better than Apple when it comes to their mobile application store. Both companies let users and developers fend for themselves, lost in a thick forest of apps.
That neither company seems to care about their online stores’ customers makes no sense: Smartphone users download more apps than songs and videos combined, and the trend isn’t slowing. According to MobiThinking:
IDC predicts that global downloads will reach 76.9 billion in 2014 and will be worth US$35 billion.
Unfortunately, Apple appears to be resting on its laurels, basking in its great App Store numbers: 40 billion served, $8B paid to developers. Perhaps the reasoning goes like this: iTunes served the iPod well; the App Store can do the same for the iPhone. It ain’t broke; no fix needed.
But serving up music and movies — satisfying the user’s established taste with self-contained morsels of entertainment — is considerably different from leading the user to the right tool for a job that may be only vaguely defined.
Apple’s App Store numbers are impressive… but how would these numbers look like if someone else, Google for example, showed the kind of curation leadership Apple fails to assert?
Mobile application design is hard. For websites, we have well-established graphic rules. For PC screens, the tolerance for interface mishaps is fairly broad. Mobile apps are the opposite: space is much scarcer, every pixel counts. Try shrinking a tablet app screen down an to a smartphone size: homothecy (linear reduction) rarely works. This is the reason why we often see fine iPad applications turn into flunked smartphone ones. It sometimes takes a while for a successful iPad app turn in to a well-adapted iPhone one: Flipboard, Zite and Bloomberg BusinessWeek were wise enough to take as much time as needed to roll-out great apps for the small screen.
When designers (and marketeers) perform user tests for a small screen app, they realize their design will have to adjust to many new circumstances and constraints. Reading time and general use conditions change substantially from a tablet to a smartphone: while the former is definitely a lean-back device, the latter will be used in many different ways, often including uncomfortable settings — I glance at my phone in a lobby, a waiting line, in the subway, etc. All this deserves thoughtful consideration when designing an application. The same applies to advertisers: they can’t expect to capture the same level of attention when moving from tablets to the smartphones.
With this in mind, I made a quick list of mandatory features for mobile applications.
Social vs. “Related”. Today’s hype leaves no other option but making an application as “social” as possible. This being the certitude du jour, allow me to think differently.
True, some apps are inherently social: when it comes to rating a product or a service, the “crowd factor” is critical. Beyond that, it should be a matter of personal choice — an antinomic notion to today’s the “Social” diktat. When you enroll into Spotify, the default setting is to share your musical taste with your Facebook friends and to suffer theirs in return. I personally can’t stand such obligation: I quickly dumped the application and cancelled my account.
The social idea’s biggest mistake is the belief in a universal and monolithic concept everyone is supposed to be willing to embrace with a similar degree of scope and enthusiasm. That’s a geeky, super-cartesian, Zuckerberg-esque view of society. Among my friends, some like opera (the singing, not the browser), others prefer heavy metal and I’m more into jazz tunes; some are tech-minded like me, others are more inclined towards literature. When it comes to sharing news, I tend to be naturally selective about the people I send a link to: I don’t want to swamp everyone with stuff they don’t care about. I might be wrong, but this is the way I see the social cyberspace: segmented and respectful of each other.
Where am I getting with this: When I read news online, I care about what is related (i.e. recommended by editors) as much as what is social (recommended by the crowd). Of course, Trending, is a good indicator of what’s hot. Here is a good example on TechCrunch iPad app, by any measure a thoughtfully designed one. Its Trending sidebar cleverly displays what’s hot and how it evolves:
Even better: when you dive into a story, the app will give you a better-focused “Trending” indicator on a particular company, in this example Buddy Media….
… will send you to the Crunch Base repository of people and companies:
TechCrunch’s social treatment is mostly Twitter-based. Subjects are connected to relevant tweets with the underlying story shown in a web view:
Related contents come in different flavors. Take the Bloomberg way shown in its remarkable BusinessWeek application. Companies mentioned in a stories can pop-up in a black sidebar drawn from the Bloomberg financial app.
Similarly, ProPublica’s application uses a lateral “drawer” to display related contents in an efficient way:
These features are by no means secondary. Providing related contents or a supplement of data, such as financial of biographical information, is the best proven way to retain users.
Finally, a word about graphics. Apple and the iPad have set the bar pretty high and very few apps takes fully advantage of their graphics power. One company rises way above the crowd: Roambi, in a class in itself when it comes to visualizing information. My take is, someday, most business sites will borrow from Roambi’s spectacular way of displaying graphics (part explanation of its design sophistication: the core of Roambi’s designers comes from the video game industry).
One last world about the ongoing debate between open web-apps and proprietary ones such as iOS or Android: The gap is narrowing. The FT.com, which pioneered the genre two years ago, made tremendous progress in its app. Periodically, a new release comes up with slight improvements in fluidity and ease of use. The iOS system and its software development kit remain a must for games and 3D intensive applications, but for news and data apps, HTML5 is getting closer.
One feature, though, is missing in most of these apps: the ability to use them offline. 3G coverage and cellular data transfers are more unstable than developers tend to believe; users should have more leeway in configuring their apps to download content in the background, ready for later offline use.
Here is the latest Twitter scam I’ve heard this week. Consider two fictitious media, the Gazette and the Tribune operating on the same market, targeting the same demographics, competing fort the same online eyeballs (and the brains behind those). Our two online papers rely on four key traffic drivers:
- Their own editorial efforts, aimed at building the brand and establishing a trusted relationship with the readers. Essential but, by itself, insufficient to reach the critical mass needed to lure advertisers.
- Getting in bed with Google, with a two-strokes tactic: Search Engine Optimization (SEO), which helps climb to the top of search results page; and Search Engine Marketing (SEM), in which a brand buys keywords to position its ads in the best possible context.
- An audience acquisition strategy that will artificially grow page views as well as the unique visitors count. Some sites will aggregate audiences that are remotely related to their core product, but that will better dress them up for the advertising market (more on this in a forthcoming column).
- An intelligent use of social medias such Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and of the apps ecosystem as well.
Coming back to the Tribune vs. Gazette competition, let’s see how they deal with the latter item.
For both, Twitter is a reasonable source of audience, worth a few percentage points. More importantly, Twitter is a strong promotional vehicle. With 27,850 followers, the Tribune lags behind the Gazette and its 40,000 followers. Something must be done. The Tribune decides to work with a social media specialist. Over a couple of months, the firm gets to the Tribune to follow (in the Twitter sense) most of the individuals who already are Gazette followers. This mechanically translates into a “follow-back” effect powered by implicit flattery: ‘Wow, I’ve been spotted by the Tribune, I must have voice on some sort…’ In doing so, the Tribune will be able to vacuum up about a quarter or a third — that’s a credible rate of follow-back — of the Gazette followers. Later, the Tribune will “unfollow” the defectors to cover its tracks.
Compared to other more juvenile shenanigans, that’s a rather sophisticated scam. After all, in our example, one media is exploiting its competitor’s audience the way it would buy a database of prospects. It’s not ethical but it’s not illegal. And it’s effective: a significant part of the the followers so “converted” to the Tribune are likely stick to it as the two media do cover the same beat.
Sometimes, only size matters. Last December, the French blogger Cyroul (also a digital media consultant) uncovered a scam performed by Fred & Farid, one of the hippest advertising advertising agencies. In his post (in French) Cyroul explained how the ad agency got 5000 followers in a matter of five days. As in the previous example, the technique is based on the “mass following” technique but, this time, it has nothing to do with recruiting some form of “qualified” audience. Fred & Farid arranged to follow robots that, in turn, follow their account. The result is a large number of new followers from Japan or China, all sharing the same characteristic: the ratio between following/followed is about one, which is, Cyroul say, the signature of bots-driven mass following. Pathetic indeed. His conclusion:
One day, your “influence” will be measured against real followers or fans as opposed to bots-induced accounts or artificial ones. Then, brands will weep as their fan pages will be worth nothing; ad agencies will cry as well when they realize that Twitter is worth nothing.
But wait, there are higher numbers on the crudeness scale: If you type “increase Facebook fans” in Google, you’ll get swamped with offers. Wading through the search results, I spotted one carrying a wide range of products: 10,000 views on YouTube for €189; 2000 Facebook “Likes” for €159; 10,000 followers on Twitter for €890, etc. You provide your URL, you pay on a secure server, it stays anonymous and the goods are delivered between 5 and 30 days.
The private sector is now allocating huge resources to fight the growing business of internet scams. Sometimes, it has to be done in a opaque way. One of the reasons why Google is not saying much about its ranking algorithm is — also — to prevent fraud.
As for Apple, its application ecosystem faces the same problem in. Over time, its ranking system became questionable as bots and download farms joined the fray. In a nutshell, as for the Facebook fans harvesting, the more you were willing to pay, the more notoriety you got thanks to inflated rankings and bogus reviews. Last week, Apple issued this warning to its developer community:
Adhering to Guidelines on Third-Party Marketing Services
Feb 6, 2012
Once you build a great app, you want everyone to know about it. However, when you promote your app, you should avoid using services that advertise or guarantee top placement in App Store charts. Even if you are not personally engaged in manipulating App Store chart rankings or user reviews, employing services that do so on your behalf may result in the loss of your Apple Developer Program membership.
Evidently, Apple has a reliability issue on how its half million apps are ranked and evaluated by users. Eventually, it could affect its business as the AppStore could become a bazaar in which the true value of a product gets lost in a quagmire of mediocre apps. This, by the way, is a push in favor of an Apple-curated guide described in the Monday Note by Jean-Louis (see Why Apple Should Follow Michelin). In the UK, several print publishers have detected the need for independent reviews; there, newsstands carry a dozen of app review magazines, not only covering Apple, but the Android market as well.
Obviously there is a market for that.
Because they depend heavily on advertising, preventing scams is critical for social networks such as Facebook or Twitter. In Facebook’s pre-IPO filing, I saw no mention of scams in the Risk Factors section, except in vaguest of terms. As for Twitter, all we know is the true audience is much smaller than the company says it is: Business Insider calculated that, out of the 175 million accounts claimed by Twitter, 90 million have zero followers.
For now, the system stills holds up. Brands remain convinced that their notoriety is directly tied to the number of fan/followers they claim — or their ad agency has been able to channel to them. But how truly efficient is this? How large is the proportion of bogus audiences? Today there appears to be no reliable metric to assess the value of a fan or a follower. And if there is, no one wants to know.