webapp

The Silly Web vs. Native Apps Debate

 

Mark Zuckerberg admits Facebook was wrong to bet on HTML5 for its mobile app. Indeed, while the previous version was a mere wrapper around HTML code, the latest iOS app is much improved, faster, nimbler. Facebook’s CEO courageously admits the error, changes course, and promises to ship an equally native Android app in the near future.

A fresh set of broadsides from the usual suspects predict, with equal fervor, the ultimate success/failure of HTML5/native apps. See, for example, Why Web Apps Will Crush Native Apps.

This is bizarre.

We don’t know what Zuckerberg and the Facebook technical team were thinking, exactly, when they chose to take the HTML5 route, but the decision was most likely guided by forces of culture and economy.

Perhaps more than any other company in the HTTP age, Facebook is a product of the Web. The company’s engineers spent days and nights in front of big screen monitors writing javascript, PHP, and HTML code for PC users. And no Website has been so richly and promptly rewarded: Facebook is now the #1 or #2 most-visited site (depending on whether you count pageviews or unique visitors).

Even as the Smartphone 2.0 era dawned in late 2007, there was no reason to jump the Web app ship: Smartphone numbers were low compared to PCs. And I’m guessing that when Facebook first looked at smartphones they saw “PCs, only smaller”. They were not alone.

Then we have the good old Write Once Run Anywhere (WORA) refrain. Developing and maintaining native apps for different devices is time-consuming and expensive. You need to hire separate teams of engineers/designers/QA, experts at squeezing the best performance from their respective devices, educing the most usable and intuitive UI, deftly tracking down elusive bugs. And even then, your product will suffer from “feature drift”: The ostensibly separate-but-equal native apps will differ in subtle and annoying ways.

HTML5 solves these problems. In theory.

In practice, two even more vexing dilemmas emerge: Performance and The Lowest Common Denominator.

Mobile users react poorly to sluggish performance. Native apps have more direct access to optimized OS modules and hardware features…which means better performance, faster, more immediate interaction. That’s why games, always looking for speed, are almost universally native apps, and it’s why all smartphone vendors promote native apps, their app stores sport hundreds of thousands of titles.

For the Lowest Common Denominator, consider a player piano that can read a scroll of eight parallel punched hole tracks, a maximum of eight simultaneous notes. You want to create richer music, perhaps on an organ that has multiple ranks, pedals, and stops? Sorry, we need your music to play everywhere, so we’ll need to enforce the eight note standard.

In the world of smartphones, sticking with the Lowest Common Denominator means trouble for new platform features, both hardware or software, that aren’t available everywhere. A second camera, a new sensor, extended graphic primitives? Tough luck, the Web apps can’t support them. The WORA approach stands in the way of creativity and innovation by demanding uniformity. This is especially wrong in a world as new, as fast-changing as the Smartphone 2.0 universe.

Pointing to the performance and lowest common denominator problems with the WORA gospel shouldn’t be viewed as a criticism of HTML5. This new (and still evolving) version of the Web’s content language provides much improved expressive power and cleans up many past sins.

Also, there are usage scenarios where Web apps makes sense and run well across several platforms. Gmail and Google Docs are prime examples, they work well on all types of PCs and laptops… But Google took pains to write native Android and iOS apps to provide better access to Google Docs on leading smartphones.

Forget facts and nuance. “It Depends” isn’t as enticing a headline as the fight between Right and Wrong.

JLG@mondaynote.com

Apps Features: Social vs. “Related”

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.

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com

Steve, Please Buy Us A Carrier!

We’re at the end of the 2011 iPhone 5 launch. The demos went well; Steve Jobs has come back on stage to thank everyone and conclude the proceedings, “…but before you go, just One More Thing. I’d like you to meet someone.” And the CEO of Deutsche Telekom walks onstage. “Deutsche Telekom owns a company you know as T-Mobile USA, but let’s start calling it by its new name: Apple Wireless.”

An audible gasp — louder than the one when Jobs announced the $499 price for the iPad – and then the room erupts in applause. At long last, iPhone users will enjoy the level of carrier service and support that is their birthright.

This is fiction, of course, wishful thinking. But bear with me…

The idea came up during a “what if” conversation with my wife Brigitte, while walking along University Avenue in Palo Alto. What should Apple do with its almost beyond comprehension $76B in cash? The COO of the Gassée family is creative and practical, an abstract painter turned “lumber VAR”–she builds or rebuilds houses in Palo Alto. She’s not enthralled by technology and takes a utilitarian view of computers, phones, navigation systems, tablets…an attitude that provides a useful counterpoint to my sometimes overly-enthusiastic embrace of anything that computes.

She immediately nixes a big acquisition that could dilute Apple’s culture, an aspect of the company that’s integrally important to Steve. She has no interest in financial engineering and concludes that Apple will continue to make small acquisitions that pose few cultural challenges–but small buyouts won’t solve the cash “problem”. What to do with all that money?

As we chat, we walk by the wireless carrier stores: T-Mobile, a couple AT&T retailers (one is shutting down), Verizon and, next to the Apple Store, Sprint, a big store with a bored sales staff that easily outnumbers the customers. “Why doesn’t Jobs buy a carrier?” she asks, “He’d easily do a better job than these people….”

As befits our well-debugged relationship, I immediately launch into a critique of her suggestion: “This is a terrible idea, on so many counts!”.

First, there are regulatory problems. Getting FCC approval for a new iPhone is one thing; wrestling with Washington bureaucrats for spectrum allocation is another.  Apple’s maverick culture, its blatant spite for government bureaucrats and Congress windbags won’t do well there.

Second, carriers are capital intensive: Their return on equity (the profit-per-dollar invested in the business) is way below what Apple enjoys, in spite of its having “way too much cash for its own good.” For example, last quarter, AT&T’s Net Income was $3.6B for $113.8B in Equity, a ratio of 3.16%. Apple’s numbers were $7.3B for $69.3, a ratio of 10.5% — more than 3 times AT&T’s.

And just imagine the other carriers’ reactions. Not only would they kick Apple products from their networks and stores, Apple would find itself in court for anticompetitive practices, for unfairly favoring its own wireless arm.

One can see Apple’s stock losing 10% on the day of the announcement and critics would have yet another field day: “Apple does it again, their Walled Garden™ just grew taller walls!”.

But it’s also a beguiling idea. Let me count the ways.

Imagine the dancing in the streets. Apple would be finishing the job it started when it broke AT&T’s err… back, when it took over content distribution with iTunes. We don’t like carriers; we experience their service as both poor and expensive, to say nothing of their impenetrable and ever-changing contract pricing:

(Not to pick on AT&T. Every carrier offers a similar, bewildering array of entrapping offers.)

By contrast, imagine Apple’s simpler pricing. Three tiers to fit your appetite for data: $49, $79, $129 per month. No gimmicks, no SMS surprises, no fees piled up at the bottom of the bill: Just the price in your contract, plus taxes. If you approach the data limit for your plan, you get an SMS offering to upgrade you to the next level–but only for this month. No underhanded up-sell.

With $76B in cash and another $10B or so per quarter, a carrier is certainly within Apple’s budget. AT&T, with its $167B market cap, is probably out of reach (and too complicated, too many businesses), and Verizon ($97B), with its dying landline business and unionized workforce, isn’t in keeping with Apple’s ways.

But consider another carrier, T-Mobile USA. It no longer offers landline services, it’s non-union, and it’s affordable—it got a $39B offer from AT&T. Acquiring T-Mobile from its parent company Deutsche Telekom offers several advantages.

To start with, it prevents an abomination before the lord: It kills AT&T’s predatory acquisition attempt. Furthermore, as my friend Peter Yared noted, Apple might very well have big mounds of cash sitting outside the US, potentially subject to taxation if repatriated. Problem solved. Peter Oppenheimer, Apple’s CFO, shows up at Deutsche Telekom’s HQ in Bonn bearing a smile and an RSA dongle: “You have a Mac I can use to make the wire transfer?” No, they don’t. But a nice 30-year Anniversary Lenovo PC will do for the transaction.

Once the deed is inked, the hard work starts. This will probably be a two-year exercise.

Decisions will have to be made. Tactfully convert existing T-Mobile users to iPhones or free them go elsewhere? (The competition will, of course, welcome these ‘‘victims’’ with open arms.) Retrain employees or offer them a decent exit package?

But the big task, the goal of the acquisition: Play the Apple vertical integration game and adapt the network to support one and only one type of smartphone, Apple’s.

Other cellular networks have to serve a wide range of devices — from basic phones to gluttonous high-end smartphones — and support a mess of protocols: Ancient ones with layer upon layer of patches, more modern ones with their factory-fresh bugs. Contrast this with Apple Wireless’ simpler task of serving one type of phone, one type of protocol. Given the two-year time frame, let’s assume the protocol will be a stable variant of what markitects call LTE or 4G. And, from there, voice and data coexistence, smoother video calls, voice-mail on iCloud, and so on.

And that’s just T-Mobile. Need more spectrum? $10B, three months of net cash flow, gets you Sprint.

Another possibility, admittedly remote, is to use tight wireless network integration with iCloud to create an inexpensive “smart dumbphone”.

What I mean is: Today’s iPhone is an app phone. It has enough hardware oomph to run a wide range of applications, all “wired” to a screen size. Because of this, cutting the iPhone’s bill of materials in half is well-nigh impossible — an “iPhone Nano” would be a much more difficult proposition than the iPod Nano. Apple would need to send developers back to their Xcode.

A better alternative would be to jettison native apps altogether, to go back to the Summer of 2007, when Steve Jobs promoted Web 2.0 apps for the first iPhone. Today, the pitch would be HTML5 Web Apps. We can already see a few good ones on iPhones and iPads, such as the new HTML5 Kindle app:

Or the nicely interactive iPhone manual, which feels like a “real” app:

A putative iPhone Nano on the no-less putative Apple Wireless network would be a dumbphone with HTML5 smarts and tightly integrated (I’ll use the P-word) proprietary services to make it sing and dance.

(As it happens, someone else already came up with the name Cloud Phone, see Trevor Sheridan’s post on the Apple’N’Apps site.)

As for the reaction from competing carriers, one has only to turn to the history of Apple Stores to get an answer. Existing retailers didn’t ditch Apple products when the company started its own retail chain. In fact, Apple Stores set a new standard in pre- and post-sale service. As a result, competing retailers raised their game. One can expect a similar reaction from AT&T and Verizon when faced with Apple Wireless.

So, yes, it’s a beguiling idea, but…

Would buying a carrier make sense financially? Look at AT&T’s iPhone ARPU, reported at more than $100/month. For Apple Wireless, this translates into more than $1B per million iPhones on its network. In 2010, T-Mobile’s ARPU was approximately $50/month for its 33.7 million customers. It’s tempting to look at the potential billions in service revenue and pronounce Apple Wireless the next big revenue opportunity.

But service isn’t Apple’s way of making money. Their one and only goal is selling devices. Everything else is in support of that goal. Execs, starting with the CEO, will wax poetic about the crystalline purity of software, more/better/faster content, new iCloud services; but what really counts is device revenue and profit. In the iPod days, iTunes didn’t make money, but it boosted device volume and margin. For today’s $100B Apple, a couple of billions in iTunes revenue is nice, it pays the bills, but it doesn’t move the needle. The iPhone is what does.

A wireless carrier owned, operated and integrated by Apple would only take two or three years to generate (much) more revenue than iTunes. But would it sell twice as many iPhones? Probably not.

It’s a nice fantasy, a carrier with the service quality and simplicity we get today when we enter an Apple Store. But for the fantasy to become reality, Apple Wireless would need to give birth to services that generate significant new hardware opportunities – opportunities that would need to be unavailable through Verizon and AT&T (otherwise, what’s the point?).

Another way to deflate the fantasy is to consider the US-only nature. Apple can’t and won’t go around the world and buy wireless carriers. With China soon to become Apple’s largest and most profitable market, the company isn’t about to lose sight of that prize, to be distracted by the complicated task of acquiring and integrating a US carrier.

That was the reverie…

Back to reality, why can’t carriers stop playing their games and show us some decency?

JLG@mondaynote.com