Mobile Platforms, User Experience

What I Hate About The Apple Watch… and Why It Will Stay On My Wrist

The long and short of it is: I got one two months ago; I got it in order to better understand where this type of wearable device is going — what it enables that wasn’t possible before and how it will affect our digital life; Like many others I used to be a bit of a watch aficionado but let go of my watches many years ago when I realized my cellphone showed the time; I am an early adopter of sorts but not really a digital junkie; And I’ve been in mobile (professionally) for 16 years now, and have typically seen convergence in this market, not divergence;

Based on this experience — this is my critique as well as my insight (ahem) about where this is going.

So first of all — What is the Apple Watch? I don’t know what the people in Cupertino had in mind, but based on what they delivered, it is really several things.

  • A watch that shows time, date, temperature etc. — Ha!
  • A health / fitness wearable
  • A notification / messaging wearable
  • … and a little tiny iPhone strapped to your wrist, sort-of

The first two categories above are generally well understood by at least early adopter consumers. The latter are newer and the jury’s still out on their utility / desirability. Now if you’re going to build something that people understand, you better deliver what they expect. So here are pet peeves #1 and #2:

#1: Can I please see the time when I want to?

The Apple Watch’s display is off most of the time, to conserve battery. It uses the accelerometer and some background processing to figure out it’s being looked at by the wearer. This works pretty well if my arm is extended (e.g. I’m standing up), but fails much too often when my arm is in my lap or on a desk. This is (a) frustrating and leads to (b) me jiggling the watch all over the place to get the display on, which initially leads the other people in the room to assume I’ve developed a tic (or worse) and often ends up with the conversation sidelining to the Apple Watch (hmm…) but not in a good light. Incidentally this is especially nagging with Siri interaction, which is supposed to start with a similar hand gesture and saying “Hey Siri”. Often it will turn off the display while I’m still talking to Siri because it will decide I didn’t mean to speak, after all.

#2: The Heart Rate Monitor Really Sucks

Heart rate monitoring when I’m on the couch is kinda cool for extreme quantified-selfers. Most people want heart rate monitoring when they are really exercising. More often then not, you will find the iPhone Watch showing you some totally irrelevant measurement taken long ago. For instance look at this photo, taken on a stepper/elliptical at the height of my workout:

This happens at least half the time, and seems to be a software problem rather than a hardware one, because when there is actually a recent measurement, it seems to be very accurate:

These consistent software issues bring me to an overall point that goes beyond the obvious:

#3. A Smart-watch is required to be, well, Smart

All too often there is poor attention to context, and therefore either silly interaction or too much user interaction required. One example are the “stand up” alerts. In keeping with the health keeper approach, the watch will alert you to stand up every hour… even if you’re obviously in a car and moving at 60 mph. It allows you to record your activity, but despite the fact that it measures your heart rate, speed etc. everything is manual — it can’t tell that you’re on a bike (despite your moving at 15 mph with an elevated heart-rate), or that your treadmill session is long over (despite your heart rate dropping to 50 and you being 100% stationary). Integration with the Health app on the iPhone isn’t great either, for instance it will bug you about not exercising despite your entering a 60-minute swimming session in the app manually (and painstakingly).

#4: A New Computing Paradigm Needs a New UX Paradigm

Moving beyond the basics of a watch-cum-activity-tracker to a new breed of computing device, Apple’s approach to delivering value revolves around snippets of information that are typically pushed to the end user. The combination of Notifications (straight out of the iOS Push mechanism) and Glances (a tiny-screen take on app widgets) alongside haptic alerts is supposed to provide a better medium for humans to remain hyper-connected without having to constantly stare at a “big” iPhone screen. In theory, that should allow people to be more intune with their surroundings and the people with them. In practice, it requires the emergence of new user experience practices.

It took years for desktop / web UX designers to master mobile UX, moving from “let’s cram the desktop experience onto a small screen” (and discovering no one wants to use it), to the current-day focus on what’s relevant and usable in a mobile app. Moving from iPhone apps to Watch glances / notifications will require a lot of trial and error before best practices emerge. We are in the early days where many apps are merely frustrating (e.g. Facebook Messenger — I can receive a message but the only response I can send is thumbs up). This is a topic that probably justifies a separate post. Let’s just say that currently some apps are useful, many are just there because management said “we must have an Apple Watch app when it launches” and product managers / designers let their inner mediocretin shine (hey I just invented a new word!).

The incredible useless Lumosity App

Another under-delivering technology at this stage are haptic alerts (taptics). Having the device strapped to your wrist makes vibrations a great way to draw your attention. But frankly I was hoping to be able to get more than a binary “Yo”. Case in point — navigation. I ride a motorcycle and I was really hoping that I could use Apple Maps navigation as a gentle “GPS on your wrist” that I could use without looking at / listening to. But for the love of me I can’t figure out when it says “go left” (three taps?) and when it says “go right” (a series of angry buzzes?).

So Why Can’t I Leave Home Without It?

In truth, this is hard for me to qualify, but three weeks into the experience I found myself leaving home without it one day and feeling, well, naked.

For one, the Apple Watch grows on you. You get used to be able to getting the time without getting out your phone, Siri-on-your-wrist makes a lot of sense (especially in the car), etc. etc.

Maybe even more salient is how lazy we are. I found myself preferring to check some info on the watch rather than on the phone because the watch was strapped to my wrist, whereas the phone was all the way on the other end of the coffee table, requiring the considerable effort of stretching out, reaching over and clicking a button. This is not unlike the reason we all do email on the iPhone even at home, or in front of our desks, despite our perfectly good laptops being in the next room or even right in front of us.

And then there’s the eco-system. The Apple Watch is useful out-of-the-box, cause it syncs with your iPhone, iPad etc. And while a lot about that eco-system is imperfect from a software perspective, it’s still the most complete one out there. Which makes things even more convenient by saving you the hassle of loading it up with stuff, setting stuff up etc. Did I mention people don’t like hassle?

So while the current Apple Watch is definitely a version 1, and while Apples software people (mostly) have a lot of work to do, if there’s one thing I learned about consumer tech over the last 15 years it is that if something new is more convenient for people, then (most) other things being equal, they will easily get used to it and not be able to go back to the old ways. The Apple Watch makes some things more convenient and accessible, and as some of these are already things we do habitually, I believe it is here to stay.

Mobile Platforms, User Experience

Cortana Opens Up Where Siri Remains a Recluse

A Big Step Forward that Leaves Much To Be Desired Cortana in Halo 4

Given Apple’s and Google’s dominance, not many of us follow Microsoft news anymore. But instead of coming apart at the seams, it looks like Microsoft is adopting the only credible strategy – trying to out-innovate its competition to the point where it becomes a leader again. Signs of success are visible with Azure becoming the most credible competition to AWS, and it seems like some if its artificial intelligence efforts are just as ambitious. Against that backdrop, the recent Cortana / Windows Speech Platform developments are steps in the right direction.

App vs. Platform

Back in September 2013 ahead of the iPhone 5 / iOS 6 launch we were trying to predict Apple’s next move. Siri launched a year earlier on the iPhone 4S, and our wager at the time (at Desti / SRI) was that iOS 6 will open Siri-as-a-platform, allowing application developers to tie their offerings into the speech-driven UX paradigm, bringing speech interaction to a critical mass. Guess what – 18 months later, Siri is still a limited, closed service, and even Google Now API is still a rumor. So Microsoft’s announcements last week is a breath of fresh air and potentially a strategic move. In a nutshell – here are the main points of what was announced (and here’s a link to the lecture at //build/):

  • Cortana available on all Windows platforms
  • 3rd party apps can extend Cortana by “registering” to respond to requests, e.g. “Tell my group on Slack that we will meet 30 minutes later”
  • Requests can be handled in the app, or the app can interact using Cortana’s dialog UI

Extending Cortana to Windows 10 is an important step towards making voice interaction with computers mainstream. Making Cortana pluggable turns it into a platform that can hope to be pervasive through a network effect. However – what was announced leaves much to be desired with regards to both platform strategy and platform capabilities.

Cortana API: Speech without Natural Language is an Unfinished Bridge

I’m a frequent user of Siri. There are simply many situations where immediate, hands-free action is the quickest / safest way to get some help or to record some information. One of Siri’s biggest issues in such situations is its linear behavior – once it goes down a path, its very hard to correct and go down another. Consider for instance searching for gas stations while you’re driving down a highway – you get a list of stations and then it kind of cycles through them by order of distance (which is not very helpful if you’ve already past something). But going back and forth in that list (“show me the previous one”) or adding something to your intent (“show me the one near the airport”) is impossible. So often you end up going back to tapping and typing. That’s where a more powerful natural-language-understanding platform is needed, e.g. SRI’s VPA, or potentially wit.ai (now owned by Facebook) or api.ai. Cortana’s API allows you to create rudimentary grammars where you more-or-less need to literally specify exactly the sentences your app should understand, with rudimentary capabilities to describe sentence templates. There is no real notion of synonyms, pursuing intent completion (i.e. “filling all the mandatory fields in the form”), going back to change something etc. So this is more or less an IVR-specification platform, and we all know how we love IVRs, right?  If you want to do more – the app can get the text and “parse it” itself. That means that every app developer that wants to go beyond the IVR model needs to be learn how to build a natural-language-understanding system. That’s not how platforms work, and will not support the proliferation of this mode of interaction – crucial for making Cortana a strategic asset. Now arguably you could say – well, maybe they never saw it as a strategic asset, maybe they were just towing the line set by Apple and Google. That, however, would be a missed opportunity.

Speech-enabling Things is a Credible Platform Strategy

The Internet of Things is coming, and it is going to be an all-encompassing experience – after all, we are surrounded by things. For many reasons, these things will not all come from the same company. A company that will own a meaningful part of the experience of these things and make them dependent on its platform – for UI, for personal data, for connectivity etc. – that company would own the user experience for so much of the user’s world. In other words – give these device makers a standardized, integrated interaction platform for their devices and you own billions of consumers’ lives. Cortana in the clowd can be a (front-end to) a platform that 3rd party developers can use to speech-enable interactions with devices – whether they make the devices (e.g. the wearable camera that needs to upload images taken) or the experiences that use them (e.g. activating Pandora on your wireless speaker). Give these app / device developers a way to create this experience and connect it to the user’s personal profile (that he/she already accesses through their laptop, smartphone, tablet etc.) and you become the glue that holds the world together. This type of software-driven platform play is exactly the strategy Microsoft’s excelled at for so many years. To be an element of such a strategy, Cortana needs to be a cloud service. Not just a service available across Windows devices, but a cloud-based platform-as-a-service that can integrate with non-Windows Things. That can be part of a wider strategy of IoT-focused platform-as-a-service (for instance – connecting your things to your personal profile, so they can recognize you and interact in a personalized context), but mostly it needs to be Damn Good. Cause Google is coming. Building a platform ecosystem and then sucking it for all its worth used to be Microsoft’s forte. Cortana in the cloud, as a strong NLU and speech platform could be an important element of its comeback strategy.

Mobile Platforms, Online Media

My Birthday Gift: The Kindle Fire, and Why It’s The First Credible Android Tablet

Over the past 6 months, I’ve been watching perplexed as vendor after vendor launched Android Tablets into the market with no success. Perplexed for a simple reason – I could not understand how they expected consumers to buy their $559, $499 or even $399 tablets when they could get an iPad 2 for $499 and get the real deal – the TRUE status symbol, the best content & app eco-system. What were Samsung, Motorola, Dell and Asus thinking, I was wondering. Was it a shortage / price of components that pushed them to that price bracket? Was it protecting the brand at all costs, even failure?

A couple months ago, I asked a question on Quora and the results were staggering – over 20:1 for iPad.

So what has changed?  The $199 Kindle Fire. You can get two of those, and still have money for another holiday gift.

Amazon’s Kindle is an ecosystem, not a device. Amazon sees it as a way to make sure you buy all your content – books, music, TV – from Amazon. Just yesterday they announced the streaming deal with FOX TV – more free content for Amazon Prime subscribers. Guess which devices will feature it? Remember Sony’s Howard Stringer’s announcement a few weeks ago – “Apple makes an iPad, but does it make a movie?“. Amazon doesn’t make them, but it sure-as-hell moves them around. In a move right out of Steve Jobs’ books, Amazon is tying it all together – device, app store, content store, streaming rights (with free content for Prime members), e-commerce for physical goods, payment options (from one-click to credit cards), cloud storage, even a loyalty program!

Kindle now touches everything Amazon does, and so many other companies. It threatens Netflix streaming – Amazon is securing more content for Prime members, and has a sound pay-TV model with a complete eco-system around it and it obliterates all other Android tablet manufacturers volume forecasts for the holiday season (a $200 rival with a strong brand behind it).

And it’s a credible contender for Apple’s eco-system. It is as broad, as far reaching, and goes even further with physical e-commerce embedded.

Probably the only risk is execution. If the software / hardware is good enough (defined as – better than most Android implementations), this will make a huge dent in the market. iPad will become the high-end product, but Android, through Kindle, could be the mass-market. Not so different from iPhones and Androids, actually.

My pre-order is in.

Mobile Platforms

How I Got It All Ass-Backwards, or How Android Got Free Again

Free!

Last week I wrote a piece about the huge cultural gap between Google and Motorola, and how Motorola is such an bad fit for the Google organization, and what it will do for it’s relationship with Android licensees. I also stated that if Google acquired Motorola for the patent portfolio alone – that’s not such a big deal in the marketplace.

Well boy was I wrong. A person who’s very close the story saw fit to fill me in.

Google’s acquisition of Motorola was indeed all about the patents. But not necessarily Google’s lack thereof, but really its licensees’. What Google is trying to do to the handset market is what Microsoft did to PCs – give the hardware market to cheap Chinese / Taiwanese / Korean manufacturers, and thereby own the software platform. The catch? The incumbents – Nokia, Apple, Microsoft (and Motorola) own restrictive patents. And they sue / charge these manufacturers to a point where they are agnostic between Google’s “free” OS and Microsoft’s “pricey” one. The only player in the Android camp who was relatively safe was Motorola, who owns a nice portfolio developed over many years.

Solution – Google buys Motorola and promises Android licensees a defensive umbrella – it will fight their patent wars for them with its newly acquired arsenal.

Right there and then, Android is free again.

So what is Google to do with the Motorola organization one might ask?

This is where it gets pretty interesting. You see Motorola is in Illinois. The state a certain president (and his associated mayor) come from. And 2012 is an election year. Who wants to see 10,000 layoffs in Illinois on an election year? Certainly not someone who wants to Do No Evil…
2012 Election

Mobile Platforms

Google acquires Motorola. Say again?!

With so many so-called experts (read: people who use Google and used to have a Motorola RAZR phone) providing different angles on this acquisition, I figured it’s time to chime in. I have a pretty good handle on Motorola (you can Google that!) and think I know something about Google too.

And what I don’t get is the culture clash. Truly. Motorola, like it or not, is an 83-year old Chicago (well Schaumburg) company, and no, the split to MMI and MMS did not change that. It is a slow mover 18,000-employee corporation, with an organization that takes years to design products, and even under Sanjay Jah that could not change much.
You see, when a company is hit as bad as Motorola Mobility was hit in 2008-2009 (and by the way – that happened through their complacence over the success of the RAZR), the good, dynamic, innovative people tend to leave. Especially in a market where Google, Facebook and Groupon are snatching all the good people who’d still like to work for a “safe” company. The culture has not changed all of the sudden, nor was there a good reason for great people to join lately.

Google is, or aspires to be, a fast-mover Silicon Valley company with a flat hierarchy, a market-driven (really numbers-driven) no-nonsense approach, with little respect for old-world processes. And it wants to retain this culture while growing to 25,000 employees.

See the issue?

So if, as some people have suggested, Google is only after the patents and will spin out Motorola again as a stand-alone device manufacturer, not so much has happened in the market (but congratulations to all the lawyers, accountants, bankers and management consultants who’re going to get the fat checks).

But if Google is truly looking to become the anti-Apple and the Motorola team is its weapon-of-choice… well, good luck with that.

P.S.: I especially like the theory that Microsoft was going to buy Motorola which forced Google to buy them first. It’s just lovely.

Mobile Platforms

Amazon’s Android Appstore (Tries) To Take Care of Business

So – the fabled Amazon Android Appstore (not App Store! That’s an App-le trademark!) is here. And almost as expected – these guys get the big things right, but the small things…

First thing you’ll notice -The Amazonian design. Besides the obvious branding elements, It is a much more effective design than Google’s. It is meant to generate sales. As soon as you open the store, you’re faced with credible alternatives – stuff you may well want to download, cause everyone else does. The screen space is used efficiently, and navigation is simple and easy. Very little innovation over, say iTunes, but also no clear disadvantages. The desktop web store is similar in approach, and not very far from the Amazon website that is so effective with retail shoppers in general.

The main attraction is a featured, “bonus” download, updated every day (i.e. a product that is usually not free being given away for free). Amazon takes care of business. To make an app store a business, you need paying customers. This requires people to have a payment method. That’s a hassle. That requires an incentive – give them something for free. But force them to connect a payment method to get the free stuff. Makes perfect sense. And gets me Angry Birds Rio for free. It also keeps me coming back every day for something else. Yes, it costs Amazon something. But probably not a lot. You see app developers have a great incentive to be providing these downloads for virtually (or literally) free – that day you were featured and provided as a free app, is going to put you very high in the Top Downloads chart – which will get you paid customers the following weeks (note the Top Downloads in the screenshot – yesterday’s free download, and today’s…). So even if Amazon pays virtually (or literally) nothing – it’s still a great deal. Everyone wins.

Caveat emptor – this also needs to work. The Appstore requires you to set up one-click mobile purchasing to get the download (as it should). However – no matter how many different ways I tried to do it, and despite the fact that all my info is shown, and my account shows mobile one-click purchasing activated (even when I connect on my desktop through a browser) – it still asks me again and again to “please add a payment mehod in your 1-click settings”. Now I am a loyal Amazon customer – Prime, Amazon Store Card and all that. My guess is that Amazon is not accepting its own store card on its own Appstore. Otherwise I don’t see how such a blatant bug could have slipped their people.

So – as expected, these people mean business, and know how to do it. They’ll have to cross a few t’s and dot a few i’s before they do, however.

Mobile Platforms

Post MWC: Android’s Tour-de-force. Is that the shape of things to come?

Over the last week I’ve had several discussions with colleagues about MWC 2011. The general gist of things was “wow, how far Android has gone”. And indeed, Android’s presence at the conference was impressive, to say the least. The usual Android suspects were there, of course – HTC, Motorola, Samsung and others. But what was even more impressive was the vast number of unknown Android manufacturers, mainly Chinese, who’ve flocked to the free platform en-masse. Known names like ZTE and Huawei were to be expected, but upstarts like Malata (who seems to make impressive Android tablets, incidentally) were there by the dozen. And of course – given Nokia’s and Apple’s absence, and RIM’s limited presence, it sometimes seemed like Android is the only game in town.

Malata Android Tablet

The Nokia / Microsoft news just fanned the fire. Essentially while it is a feather in Windows Phone’s cap (not necessarily a beautiful peacock feather, incidentally), it means that Nokia will be out of the smartphone game for a long time. And to judge by the employees’ reaction – could be long indeed.

The general conclusion I heard drawn, then is simple – Android is taking over the market, Android will define the shape of things to come, Android is where to take your mobile start-up / corporate mobile app first cause that’s where all the users will be. Right?

Sorry, it’s not that simple. Contrary to what some people think, Android to phones is not going to be Windows to PCs. At least not in the next 2-3 years. There are many reasons, but I think the most important one lies in the personal relationship between consumers and their phones. Unlike PCs (at the time), phones are a means for personal expression both explicitly (as in what you put on them / use them for) and implicitly (as in making sure your peers know what you have – just like cars). Most smartphone users associate their phone selection and habits with their identity. And with identity, a “one size fit all” strategy doesn’t work, fortunately. So as long as there are technologically credible alternatives with a well differentiated product (e.g iPhone, BlackBerry), they will draw significant audiences.

Furthermore, the wider Android spreads as a mid-market solution, the less appealing will it be to some of these people who seek to distance themselves from “the middle”. Think the Mac cult of the ’90s and early ’00s but at a wholly different level. After all – these devices are used in the open. People see what you use, so better pick the “right” one.

So clearly – the fragmentation in the smartphone space is going to continue. Each platform’s market segment will be different demographically and psycho-graphically,  and these compositions will continue evolving. I expect we’ll keep seeing Android pandering mostly to the mid-market (with of course a meaningful number of power-users and high-end customers too). iPhone will generally remain a high-end phenomenon. BlackBerry may well lose its hold on the enterprise, but acquire new audiences amongst the young and price-conscious (free messaging). And when Nokia eventually rolls out Windows Phone handsets, it is quite possible that their considerable distribution clout in European and Emerging markets will make this a meaningful platform for those audiences.

I believe a very similar phenomenon will be seen in tablets. While Android tablets are improving, the good ones are still not meaningfully cheaper than the iPad. Apple only needs some minor improvements with the anticipated iPad 2 in order to stay in the lead. Only when significantly cheaper tablets (probably running Android 3.0) will come to the market can the balance be upset. And what will we have then? A similar market structure with iPad as the premium product and Android tablets as cheaper, “good enough” devices for mid-market consumers.

Where does this leave the Android makers? With the proliferation of Chinese manufacturers with great pricing power, we will see the PC-wars re-enacted. Margins will drop to low single digits for most manufacturers, probably leading to consolidation and elimination of key brands.

So essentially – nothing earth-shattering really came out of MWC. We will see even more Androids, Symbian and MeeGo are dead (duh!) but little change to the fabric of the market as we’ve known it in 2010.

Mobile Platforms

In Smartphones: Google is King but Apple is Rich

A couple of weeks ago, the inevitable was announced. According to Canalys, a leading mobile market research firm, in Q4 2010 Android has overtaken Symbian as the world’s most-pervasive smartphone platform. According to Canalys, 33.4 Million Android phones were shipped by Google licensees in the quarter – more than double the iPhones or BlackBerries.

While this has been touted with much fanfare, some seemingly contradictory information is “common knowledge” to mobile application developers. It is still much easier to get traction and especially monetize iPhone apps than Android apps. How come? With such momentum for Android, you’d expect it to be at least as successful as iPhone.

The answer, which I’ve been proclaiming for awhile now, can be summed up this way – “Android is the new Symbian”. Now I’m sure some Googlers will resent this, so maybe a different way to put it is – “Android is the new MS-DOS”.

What I mean by this are really two things. First, that Google’s strategy with Android is to reach as far and as wide as it can. That’s one of the reasons it is free to licensees, open-source etc. Google intends to eventually leverage Android by tying it to its other assets and ultimately use advertising to monetize it. This means you can build cheap Android phones and target the mid-market, not just the high-end as other smartphones have (in truth, Android hardware requirements are still relatively high, but Moore’s law is taking care of that cost). Furthermore the abundance of licensees means that a price war is evident – and indeed we now see free (subsidized) Android phones on many operators portfolios. So – Android is becoming the dominant player in the mid-market, with high-end presence too, and ultimately low-cost aspirations. This is exactly the path Symbian took in 2004 – 2008, becoming the world’s leading smartphone platform by volume – but dwindling in consumers’ eyes to a point where it drives low-margin devices, with BlackBerries (initially) and iPhones (later) commanding the high-end, high-margin sector. In 2008, a Nokia executive told me personally that Nokia learned the hard way that the top 10% of the handset market commands 50% of the margin. Think about it – if one company takes over the top 10%, it can be worth as much of all the other companies combined (who sell in aggregate 9 times as much as it does). Right? So this is the second point – a smartphone platform that is focused on mass is doomed to become a low-margin platform. Google doesn’t mind. But it’s licensees are doomed to fighting over scraps.

Now this is a tall order claim, that I couldn’t really publish before, until I ran into this analysis by Asymco’s Horace Dediu:

Which brought to mind Noam Wasserman’s “Founder’s Dilemma” metaphor about Rich vs. King. Apple’s startegy with the iOS devices, just like with the Mac before, is to aim for the top 10-30% of the market. The people who can spend, the people who care deeply about the product they are buying and using. Google’s strategy is more like carpet-bombing. If we can get to 80% of the people, we’ll surely find a way to monetize that.

So is this just an interesting business case? Or Valley gossip?.

If you’re involved in this business in any way – you might be an app developer, a marketer wanting to reach mobile device users through mobile ads or a mobile app / website etc., or a service provider who is pushed to provide a service to his customers through their phones, this is critical info. Cause it means that you are going to reach a different demographic and psychographic when you target the different platform. In the Apple case, your demographic will be skewed towards high-income, users may be more engaged with the product, and there may be more willingness to pay. On the Android platform you will eventually reach more people, but engagement and purchasing intent will be different. And your adoption ratio (compared to the total available Android market) will be different, as many of these users are much less enthusiastic about their phones. Yes – they bought a smartphone, but maybe because “everyone else is getting one” or because “it was free, so why not”. So choose your audience wisely, and plan your marketing moves with consideration for its composition.

Mobile Platforms

Why Amazon Needs An Android App Store – A Different Take

A couple of weeks ago, Amazon’s opened it’s App Store to developers, and promised to actually open the store to consumers “this year”. While TechCrunch’ Jason Kincaid has done some good work explaining the premise to consumers and the overall eco-system, a clear answer to the question “Why” remains open. After all, if this brings about further market fragmentation, if it’s going to be that hard to get the store pre-installed on phones which is the only sure-fire way to generate market traction, and if the direct returns from running an app store are generally not meaningful – i.e. the app store is a means to facilitate activity on your platform and make it competitive, (smartphone, e-reader, whatever), much more than a system to generate revenue from commerce.

So why does Amazon, which does not have a smartphone platform (Kindle aside), and certainly no platform / device stake in Android, need an Android App Store? The only attempt at an answer I’ve seen came from Gizmodo, and left much to be desired.

While it is entirely possible that the simple answer is “it doesn’t” and this is just a mistake carried too far, here is a  more strategic explanation.

An App Store Is About A Billing Relationship With Users

The biggest advantage the iTunes store had on prior online music stores, and the iTunes App Store on various other app download sites, is the immediacy of transactions that is enabled by the requirement to have a credit card registered with iTunes from the get-go, and by the support for $0.99 micro-payments. This made one-click purchasing a reality, and made the iTunes App Store such a hit with people looking for a quick-fix to their boredom, as well as entertainment app developers of all sorts. Competing app stores which did not have that billing relationship with customers never created a similar volume of sales – including the Android Market itself.

In the same token – while initially most of the business executed on the iPhone App Store was through a pay-before-download model, it seems like more and more of the business is now tied to in-app payments, i.e. “download for free and then pay for digital goods” – be they more levels of play, various items to use in-game, premium content etc. . For instance if you look at the iTunes’ App Store’s “Top 10 Grossing” chart today you will find the FREE game “Zombie Farm” – a game that monetizes only through in-app payments, facilitated through the iTunes micro-payment capabilities.

Amazon is all about a billing relationship for retail. It has made simplifying payment and delivery key pillars of its strategy. It keeps your credit and debit cards on file, and even issues its own store cards for many users. For a very high percentage of existing Android users, this means an Android App Store is a store where they could immediately purchase and download apps based on their existing payment cards stored with Amazon. This is a key advantage Amazon likely hopes to put to use.

But even more importantly for Amazon – Android is a smartphone platform that is already penetrating new global markets en-masse, and if Amazon manages to become a de-facto standard app store, then the billing relationships created with new Android users will then be mined to sell other digital goods – and later physical goods. i.e. the “Amadroid” app-store has the potential of recruiting new Amazon customers in massive volumes, internationally. And that’s a major strategic opportunity.

Amazon Has Better E-Commerce Credentials

Most every existing platform app-store has managed to miss some critical aspects of optimal merchandising experiences. Whether it’s the billing relationship question, the discoverability issue (that I wrote about before, e.g. here), the lack of personalization and so forth – it looks like no one, including Google, has built a great commerce experience that entices users to buy more. In Google’s case a cursory examination would show you apps in languages you don’t read, prices localized to sums like “$3.13” which make little marketing sense, an arbitrary or random list of proposed apps. Compare to your average Amazon display – where once you get into the site, shows you products that YOU are likely to be interested in, suggests add-on or replacement products should you not like the ones on display, and tells you what other people are buying. Amazon with an eye for detail and a knack for optimization is well positioned to create a better customer-trap. This is good for customers, good for developers, and good for the platform. Amazon is betting that if they can build a better store, ultimately Google will not fight back. After all, that is not the reason Google built Android, nor is it how they intended to monetize it.

So Amazon has a better shot than Google at building an effective store (for Apps or any other digital content or physical goods), and certainly better than wireless carriers or some of the other contenders. And there are very good reasons to do so – regardless of the size and commercial dynamics of the app market itself.

It’s a Platform, Silly

Taking this a little further – let’s look at in-app payments again. If this model, facilitated by the store, is adopted by apps selling other goods – digital or otherwise, and especially if Amazon can make the commercial terms more flexible based on what is being sold and by whom – this is really a new mobile commerce platform that Amazon can run, and will allow other innovators to use Amazon as an enabler platform.

That is exactly where Amazon wants to be. It’s the philosophy behind Amazon Marketplaces, Amazon Web Services and several other Amazon initiatives. Amazon wants to be the e-commerce platform for the web – including the mobile piece of it. The more end users are reached, the bigger their total market share is going to be. Period. Having a successful mobile app store for Android or any other platform will help them get farther, faster.

Mobile Platforms, Online Travel

Mobile Gems At PhoCusWright 2010 ?

A few weeks ago, I’ve attended a very vibrant PhoCusWright conference. With over 1,000 attendees, an upbeat economical (compared to 2009), and a Tnooz “Appy Hour” reception on the first day, I expected mobile to be a key topic. Frankly I was very surprised when out of the  34 Companies presented at the Innovator Summit – only three were directly mobile-focused – less than 10%.  Maybe mobile is not that relevant? Or alternatively is it a business that for some reason has to be owned by incumbents? Well, on that last point, we got the answer on the last day of the conference, when Expedia’s focus on this space was demonstrated through its acquisition of Mobiata, and in the final executive interview with Priceline’s CEO Jeff Boyd, who stated that “If you look at the rapid proliferation of smartphones, tablet computers… that’s the most exciting thing to have happened on the Internet… and represents a unique opportunity for travel… there’s a huge opportunity to try and capture the value from the change in behavior that results from this technology…“ With these statements in mind, here’s my take on the alleged mobile innovators who presented at PhoCusWright – and some thoughts on where mobile travel is going. In expressing these opinions I am naturally biased – after all, I’ve been doing mobile travel for over 11 years now, and probably generated more revenue and users than all of these companies combined…

Movitas – “The New Guest Operating System”
Due disclosure – I am a big fan of Keith Forshew, their CEO. I think he’s a class act. Movitas essentially build property-specific mobile apps for resorts, hotels etc. Their perspective on this is that the mobile device is a great way for the property to communicate with the guest, and by providing a hotel-specific app that covers everything from check-in through communications between guests and staff and between guests themselves, access to everything from restaurant menus to amenities down to using the hotel switchboard to place calls routed from the smartphone.
I agree that hotels, and especially resorts with many services and amenities, would do well to offer their own mobile apps / websites. People are coming to expect that. But the assumption that a guest (and old dog) is willing to learn a “whole new operating system” (new tricks) every time he is visiting a new hotel is simply unfounded. Simply getting guests to download your mobile app is not trivial.  Getting them to learn how to use it to do twenty different things – including things for which they already have well-established mobile habits (e.g. telephony), is plain unreasonable. So if I’m a property-manager in need of a mobile-app, I may well look at Movitas as a vendor – they do have a good “template” to start from. But I will avoid much of the high-flying tech-for-tech-sake features they propose. Movitas will do well to take some of their ideas and try to ground them in existing mobile user habits – not build proprietary experiences (easier said than done).

Goby – The Local Mobile Search Engine
I have to say I like the area these guys are pursuing. Hotels / Cars / Flights were done time-and-time again, while no one has really cracked open the in-destination market, especially with regards to activities & services (A&S). I also think they’ve built a compelling mobile user experience, and they seem to have amassed a whole lot of content.
However, the challenges ahead are still significant. First & foremost, one of the biggest issues of the A&S market is the lack of an easy monetization infrastructure. Those dozens of thousands of disparate businesses, each with a different “booking model” do not tap into one system and are not all (or most) part of some wide-scale affiliate program, which makes monetizing the traffic (customers) you send to them extremely hard. In an adjacent space, OpenTable did that by building a significant sales-force on the ground and signing up restaurant after restaurant by offering them software they actually needed in order to lure them in – and ended up monetizing mostly through the subscription fees for that software. And restaurants are generally comparable which simplifies the software and the user experience. A museum and a white-water-rafting vendor – not so much.
The second challenge is again getting traction with users in the face of established habits. Google Maps and Yelp are slowly becoming platforms for solving the “what to do next and where” challenge for consumers in their home-town. These consumers may well prefer the brands and user experiences they know when they’re traveling too. TripAdvisor is already trying to chase Yelp, I wouldn’t be surprised if Goby is a target for them – at least in order to progress the user experience faster and present a more compelling consumer story.

Kony Solutions – Write Once, Run Anywhere?
Again for due disclosure – in 2001 I led the creation of a platform called X-Mobile, an XML-based, mobile, loosely-connected rich-client creation environment. It was deployed by Israel’s largest bank for banking application, and Israel’s largest dairy vendor for a supply-chain-management app. Heck I even wrote my MSc. thesis on the subject. So I am biased.

The challenge of developing multi-platform mobile apps is real. This is a market where not just the #1 but even the Top-3 platforms change every 3 years –

  • 2010: iPhone, Android, BlackBerry
  • 2007: Symbian S60, BlackBerry, Windows Mobile
  • 2004: Symbian S60, Windows Pocket PC, Symbian UIQ

Furthermore the different device form-factors themselves are varied – big screens, smaller screens, keyboard, no keyboard etc. If you’re a consumer-facing company, and you decide you need an app – you have a big dilemma. We discussed that at EyeForTravel and I followed up with a more detailed review. So I buy at least into most of the arguments in Stewart Elliot’s FUD campaign.

So – is Kony the solution? Unfortunately it’s not that simple. This is a hard problem to solve at its core. The differences between the platforms are supposedly the manufacturer’s “differentiators” – the reason someone prefers an iPhone 4 to a BlackBerry Torch or a Motorola Droid X to a Samsung Fascinate. They have a good reason to maintain the differences, so the common way to build a platform that “magically bridges them” is to dumb down the capabilities to the platforms to a lowest-common-denominator. This means many things that can be done in the “native” platform cannot be done in that “write once” platform. So do you need those things in your mobile travel app? If you do – Kony might not be good enough. If you don’t – they may be overkill anyway.

Furthermore, the “right way” to build such a tool is one where the platform owner (e.g. Google Android, Apple iOS) is the one incentivized to have that tool work well on the platform. Otherwise the tool will break every time there’s a new platform update or product. That usually means establishing a standard, and in this domain the relevant standard seems to be HTML 5. HTML 5 allows rich web apps to run in the browser on all these devices. Kony is aware of that and seems to be running a hybrid approach of HTML 5 screens running within a Kony “meta-client”.

So what Kony really is, from my perspective, is a consulting company with expertise in serving travel suppliers, and a “secret sauce” in the form of a proprietary framework to build these hybrid applications in. So as in Movitas’ case – if I’m a travel marketer looking for someone to build my next mobile app, I’ll definitely solicit a proposal from these people. If it’s a non-trivial app, it’s likely they will be able to expedite it to the market and the cost may even be competitive. But assuming they will displace standards, or give Adobe (for instance) a run for their money? Don’t bet on it. An if ultimately what you wish to built can and should be built as an HTML 5 mobile website, getting locked into their platform can be a big mistake in the long term.

So – what does this mean for the industry?
From the low attendance of mobile travel innovators and also from what these companies actually do, I get the feeling the zeitgeist is that mobile travel will be left in the hands of the incumbents. Whether it’s established travel players – e.g. Expedia (with some help from the Mobiata team) or potentially mobile players (Apple’s iTravel? Others are moving too) or most likely real platform players – like Google Maps. For all of these companies this is a high-stakes game, and they do seem to realize it. In the absence of disruptive upstarts, they’ll just keep trying and gradually improving their offerings in the space, until they hit a gold vein. At this stage I think Google has the most demonstrable ability to do it, and if no one else builds a better mouse-trap, Google Maps / Local Search will be the in-destination tool of choice for travelers. With 80% of purchasing decisions made in-destination (according to QuickMobile’s Patrick Payne), they stand to make a lot of new revenue there. And with the ITA and Google Places assets progressing, they stand to be the dominant player in mobile pre-trip planning too.