I’m at Microsoft’s Build developer conference this week, and got a little preview of some of what’s being announced in a private session for analysts yesterday. Today’s day 1 keynote is focused on Microsoft’s broad vision for this year’s event and its cloud and AI business. Many of the things I cover most closely will actually be in tomorrow’s keynote, which will cover more of the consumer-facing parts of the business. But there were still several notable announcements today that are worth talking about, even on a site like this that’s more consumer tech-focused. Firstly, it’s worth noting CEO Satya Nadella’s philosophical intro, which emphasized the ethical and other responsibilities tech companies have as well as the limits of tech in solving the world’s problems. That’s an admirable stance and a theme we’ve seen more from Nadella than any other tech leader in recent years.
Secondly, Microsoft’s big push this year is a shift from Nadella’s earlier mobile-first, cloud-first vision to a new vision around intelligent cloud combined with intelligent edge. What that means is that Microsoft sees the cloud as being less centralized and more distributed, including in edge devices, and its new Azure IoT Edge concept takes cloud computing functionality and puts it in potentially tiny devices at the edge of the network. That’s a somewhat unique vision for the cloud, especially from a company that’s also strong in the core cloud context. If Microsoft is right about this vision, and I suspect it is in the industrial world especially, then that raises interesting questions for other vendors and their ability to push that capability into edge devices, where operating system companies are strong but others tend not to be.
Thirdly, Microsoft is pushing what it calls its Graph, which is a sort of backend for its own services but also opens up to developers, and began as an agglomeration of data about users and is expanding to include those users’ activities in apps and across devices. The idea is that this Graph will power continuity between apps and other activities for users through both first-party and third party features. It’s a good concept and in some versions is reminiscent of what Apple does with Handoff and Continuity in its operating systems. But the big challenge for this vision at Microsoft is that it’s got a huge gap in its Graph around mobile, because people spend the vast majority of their mobile time outside Microsoft devices, operating systems, and apps. I can’t see it changing that, and that’s going to reduce the value of the Graph significantly, especially in the consumer world. I’ll have more commentary on some of the consumer-focused announcements in tomorrow’s keynote.
Lastly, one kind of consumer-focused announcement today, which has been subtle on stage but covered somewhat in the press regardless based on pre-briefings is Cortana Skills, which were announced way back in December but are now going more generally available to developers. What’s interesting here is that unlike Amazon’s Alexa Skills, at least some of these third party capabilities will be built in even if users haven’t explicitly installed or enabled the apps, including weather app Dark Sky and Domino’s Pizza. We’re still in the very early days here, but it will be interesting to see how skills on a PC-centric assistant like Cortana evolve differently from those on speaker- or phone-centric assistants like Alexa or Siri.
via Techmeme (and about a thousand articles on different announcements made today which you’ll find linked there)
I’m seeing this change generally being reported as a clarification (including in the piece I link to here) but this is a change from the original wording here, which explicitly said the cut in affiliate fees announced a couple of weeks ago applied to both “app and in-app content” and didn’t include apps in the list of content types to which the change would not apply. Unless that was just really terrible wording, it does seem as though there has been a change in policy here. Applying the change just to in-app purchases again makes me wonder whether there might be some change to Apple’s cut of App Store revenue in this category, announced at WWDC in a few weeks. We don’t know quite how much of Apple’s App Store revenue comes from IAP, but games dominate total revenues, and IAP is the dominant model for games, so there’s a good chance that it’s 30% or more. As such, any cut to Apple’s share of revenues would dent overall App Store growth and Apple’s ambitions to double its overall Services revenues over four years from 2016 to 2020. So I’m somewhat skeptical, but changing the cut for IAPs would certainly go a long way to addressing the long-standing complaint from content companies like Spotify that Apple takes too much of their fees, given that those are charged through IAPs. And it would potentially open the door to Amazon’s arrival on the Apple TV too.
Apple Provides Better Source Insights to App Developers (May 4, 2017)
Apple has been criticized for not giving developers good enough insights on how their apps perform and especially for not allowing developers to know where new users come from. That’s now changing with an update to Apple’s analytics platform for developers, which will be particularly useful in light of the paid ads which now run in Apple’s App Store search function. Developers need to know whether those ads are being effective in gaining new users and downloads, and how they measure up relative to other lead generation methods. The incremental steps Apple has taken to expand the range of business models open to developers, to share more of the revenue with those developers, and to improve analytics over the past couple of years are all checking important boxes in the wish lists of developers and cementing the status of iOS as the platform to develop for, despite Android’s larger user numbers.
Apple Watch Loses Google Maps, Amazon, eBay Apps (May 1, 2017)
This piece does a good job digging up the news that several iPhone apps from high-profile names have quietly ditched their Apple Watch companion apps. I’m seeing some spin this as a sign that the Apple Watch isn’t working for people, but the reality is that we’re seeing two rather different things at play here. Firstly, apps on the Apple Watch were one of the big misjudgments on Apple’s part: as a group, they really haven’t taken off, not least because in their first couple of iterations they were painfully slow to use. Performance of apps has improved markedly in watchOS 3 and on the Series 2 hardware, but that leaves us with problem number two: many of the apps launched for the Watch simply don’t provide enough utility either on a standalone basis or as alternatives to the iOS versions to be worthwhile. And what we’re seeing now is some of those failed experiments going by the wayside.
We’re still figuring out what works and what doesn’t on the Watch, although a glance at the official App Store for the Watch gives you some idea of what Apple thinks: health and fitness apps dominate the first screen, followed by games, news, sports, and finally utilities. Apple obviously has its own play for navigation, which works particularly well for walking directions, and the Amazon and eBay apps were always a bit of a stretch. The eBay app is a great example of a use case that doesn’t actually need its own app but can work perfectly fine with interactive notifications or a widget on the iPhone. So we’re likely to continue to see apps come and go from the Watch, not least because developers now have many possible areas of investment around iOS apps, including watchOS, tvOS, iPad support, support for the unique hardware features on the iPad Pro line, and so on. As such, some are likely very wise to prioritize other features and platforms over the Apple Watch, while others will do well putting their investment on people’s wrists.
via Apple Insider
Amazon is giving developers of Skills (apps) for Alexa new speech tools which should help them create interactions where the assistant sounds more human through the use of pauses, different intonation, and so forth. Amazon already uses these for Alexa’s first party capabilities, but third party developers haven’t had much control over how Alexa intones the responses in their Skills. This should be a useful additional developer tool for adding a bit more personality and value, but I wonder how many developers will bother – new platform tools like this are always a great test of how engaged developers are and how committed they are to creating the best possible experience rather than just testing something out. I’ve argued from the beginning that the absolute number of Skills available for Alexa (now at 12,000) is far less meaningful than the quality of those apps, and many of them are very basic or sub-par, likely from developers trying something out as a hobby without any meaningful commitment to sustaining or improving their apps. On the other hand, the smaller number of really serious apps for Alexa should benefit from these new tools.
One of Amazon’s big advantages in building scale for its Alexa assistant has been its opening of the underlying platform to third party hardware vendors, and the resulting hardware was arguably the big story of CES this year. Google, by contrast, has only opened up its Assistant very slowly to third parties, instead favoring its own hardware for the first six months or so. That’s now starting to change as it not only makes the Assistant available in Android but now also starts opening up an SDK for third party hardware makers, albeit in a fairly closed fashion for now. One thing it’ll want to make sure of is that the resulting hardware meet some minimum standards, something Amazon has done very little to enforce.
via Ars Technica
Apple Enables Web Embedding of Live Photos for Developers (Apr 20, 2017)
Also today at F8, Facebook overhauled its Messenger Platform, which launched last year, and went as far as to call it Messenger Platform 2.0. That kind of separation from the version launched a year ago is smart, because the first round was ill thought out, with the vision for bots both too expansive and not nearly detailed enough. In the year since, Facebook has made a lot of progress, and the version of bots it now offers to developers is much more compelling and better suited to the kinds of things it will be used for. Facebook is also getting better at serving small and medium sized businesses, which continue to make up an enormous chunk of the total base of businesses in many markets. That’s important because these businesses represent the biggest future opportunity for Facebook advertising, which is already well penetrated among larger enterprises. I’m still skeptical that bots have broad appeal beyond a few specific categories, but it’s starting to look like Facebook has cracked at least some of what it will take for bots to be successful in those categories where they do make sense. And it’s less religious about bots as full-fledged experiences now, too, which means that other flavors of automated, semi-automated, and human-driven interactions can live side by side more seamlessly, which is smart.
I’m at Facebook’s F8 today and one of the two big announcements from the first day keynote is this Camera Effects Platform, which is Facebook’s first big push into AR. That’s a good thing, because Facebook has so far made its big bet on its narrower cousin, VR, through Oculus. AR has the potential to be much bigger, and Facebook getting into this space will only accelerate adoption and awareness. Sensibly, though, I don’t think any of this will be described as AR in most user-facing settings – it’ll have more user friendly names like Camera Effects, Frames, and so on. But building a platform for AR experiences including some pretty sophisticated ones means Facebook is finally serious about AR both from a first-party and developer perspective, which is a good thing. The stuff shown off on stage today looked much cleverer than what Snapchat launched this morning, and although it won’t all be available right away I suspect Facebook is actually going to be ahead here, especially when it comes to the rear-facing camera. In fact, there’s a possible scenario in which Snapchat continues to do AR better for the selfie camera, while Facebook provides better AR experiences for the outside world. More broadly, this means Facebook will now be a serious player in a field which includes not just itself an Snapchat but also Microsoft, and will soon include Magic Leap, Apple, and many others too. There are therefore big questions to ask about who will be able to attract developers and help them get a return on their investment with good monetization. I would expect to see some similar stuff from Apple at WWDC in June and possibly even more in September with new iPhone hardware too.
Intel Kills its Developer Forum, its Big Annual Event (Apr 17, 2017)
Twitter unveils a new API platform, roadmap and vision for its developer community – TechCrunch (Apr 6, 2017)
Twitter has had a rocky and confusing relationship with developers over the years. Early on, it relied heavily on developers and encouraged them to build apps, but then it pulled back from that strategy and also made it harder for developers to create standard Twitter apps in competition with its own. And then it built and subsequently sold off a set of developer tools. So developers could be forgiven for being a little wary of another developer push from Twitter. But the moves Twitter announced today seem largely sensible and should move the company’s developer platform along nicely, aligning the mainstream REST and streaming APIs with its enterprise-grade GNIP APIs, and adding new functionality both today and through 2018 to improve and expand its offerings. All of that should make it easier for developers to build apps to hook into Twitter and take advantage of its data for a variety of purposes, as well as using Twitter as a customer service channel. That’s all good stuff, and if Twitter hasn’t alienated developers entirely, it should help rebuild that relationship over time too, with at least some of them.
Facebook will launch group chatbots at F8 – TechCrunch (Mar 29, 2017)
This is yet another sign that Facebook feels its initial bot strategy from last year isn’t panning out (something I predicted at the time) and that it needs to try alternative approaches. It’s iterated fairly rapidly since then and added some functions to make interacting with bots easier, and it now sounds like it’s trying another different tack, allowing developers to integrate bots into group conversations. But those bots won’t be interactive AI-type creatures, but instead will provide updates on events or processes, such as sporting matches or food orders. Like earlier pivots, this seems more modest in its ambitions but also more likely to be successful. But Facebook’s direction here stands in marked contrast to Microsoft’s, which continues to work on AI-based chatbots.
Apple’s App Store Gets a Makeover – Bloomberg (Mar 21, 2017)
The headline makes it sound like there are changes coming to the App Store, but this story is really about all the changes that have already happened on the App Store since Phil Schiller took it over from Eddy Cue a little over a year ago. One of the notable things in the story is the impact that better analytics have had, and how that’s made it easier for more dynamic developers to update their apps more frequently in response to user behavior. More generally, though, the article suggests that big strides have been made in the way the App Store runs from a developer perspective, which is a story that hasn’t been told much. It’s been subtle, and if you’re just a user you might not be aware of most of these changes, but better experiences for developers make for better end user experiences too. I know there are still lots of developers, especially Mac-centric developers, who have complaints they feel have gone unheeded, but Apple has at least made some progress in fixing big pain points on the iOS side.
Foursquare is the rare example of a company whose late-stage pivot is actually working out. So many companies switch from one business model to another early in life – Twitter is a classic example – but very few start to struggle after several years of one business model only to find success with another. A few years back, a friend who was then senior at Foursquare told me that data and tools and not consumer check-ins were going to be the future of Foursquare, and in the years since the company has been executing on that vision. One of the most impressive parts of this is that Foursquare apparently has more checkins today than ever before, so the app is actually still doing well enough among a core set of users to provide a rich location database that can be used for these new developer tools. But it’s now monetizing pretty much exclusively through the developers and others that are tapping into its location data rather than through something on the consumer end.
Motorola Shares Results from Moto Mod Developer Events (Feb 6, 2017)
While LG is stepping away from its modular approach, Lenovo/Motorola seems to be doubling down on its Moto Mods strategy, holding developer events to invite third parties to come up with clever ideas for add-ons to its Moto Z range. Either Motorola is seeing more traction around the concept than LG did, or it’s simply out of other ideas for how to differentiate its phones in the market. I’ve seen little evidence that the Mods (or Moto Z) are selling particularly well, so I’m skeptical that it’s the former. But it’s interesting to see Motorola take the crowdsourcing approach here, both with these developer events and its Indiegogo campaign, which runs through March.
Apple opened up Siri access to certain categories of developers last year as part of iOS 10, but Siri on the Apple Watch has remained a first-party-only affair. That will change with iOS 10.3, which is rolling out to developers today and offers developers in a subset of four domains the ability to integrate their Apple Watch apps into Siri on the Watch. Apple’s focus in the last year or so has been about putting Siri on essentially every device it sells – a counter to Amazon Echo and Google Home’s single device approach – and making Siri smarter by allowing it to control more third party functionality, albeit in a much more tightly controlled way than Alexa’s Skills approach or even Google’s recent opening up of the Assistant with Actions on Google. These two fronts – third party integrations and the range of devices supported – will be critical as these various companies compete in the voice assistant space, and this small step is part of that much bigger picture.
via Business Insider
Twitter canceled its annual developer conference, Flight, back in October, and I posited at the time that this would send a strong message to developers working with Twitter, though I got pushback from some people at Twitter. Now, Twitter is selling its developer tools (collectively known as Fabric) to Google, rather validating my initial take on the Flight cancelation (no pun intended). This is certainly a result of Twitter’s narrower focus going forward on user-facing, live content including video, but it reinforces the sense that Twitter has really messed around with developers over its history. Developers will still be able to create and run apps for Twitter, but Fabric was a big part of Twitter’s developer toolset and a major focus of those Flight conferences in the past. Lots of those tools, though, had little to do with the core Twitter product, so there’s definitely some logic in selling it a company – Google – which is committed to providing a broad set of generic tools to developers.
App downloads up 15 percent in 2016, revenue up 40 percent thanks to China – TechCrunch (Jan 17, 2017)
Two things are worth noting about all the data presented here: firstly, apps are still growing massively, putting the lie to the idea that native mobile apps are somehow dead, to be replaced by some combination of better web apps, bots, or something else. The number of apps being downloaded is growing rapidly each year rather than stagnating or slowing down. The second point is that there continues to be a massive disparity between usage and spending when it comes to Android and iOS. See the first and fourth charts in this article – the first shows massively more Android apps downloaded than iOS apps, while the fourth shows double the spending on those iOS apps relative to Android. It continues to be far more profitable for developers to make apps for iOS, even with a smaller user base and far fewer apps downloaded. That, in turn, seems likely to reinforce the pattern that the vasty majority of big new apps get launched on iOS first, and Android second (if ever). That continues to be one of Apple’s big ecosystem advantages.