iOS: Where the money is

February 23rd, 2011

Wow, it has been a while… if you’ve been breathlessly reloading this page for months waiting for a new post, well, your wait is over! Enjoy this… minor comment on a news item.

Amidst the recent hubbub over Apple’s decision to charge publishers 30% of revenue for in-app subscriptions, and to require that such subscriptions be the same price or cheaper as subscriptions outside the app, many online commentators are convinced developers will flock to Android instead. However, one need only look at the facts to get a different impression:

The App Store now controls 82.7% of the worldwide app market [with $1.8 billion in 2010], down from 92.8% the previous year, IHS notes. Research In Motion’s (Nasdaq: RIMM) BlackBerry App World is second with 2010 revenues of $165 million, translating to a 7.7% market share and year-over-year growth of 360.3%; Nokia’s (NYSE: NOK) Ovi Store is next at $105 million, corresponding with 4.9% market share (up 719.4% year over year), with the Android Market bringing up the rear at $102 million, accounting for 4.7% of the market but experiencing 861.5% annual growth (emphasis mine).

30% more of zero is still zero.

» Apple’s App Store Yields 83% of App Revenues in 2010 (via Apple Outsider and Daring Fireball)

In a statement this morning, noted curmudgeon and control freak Apple signaled a surprising change of heart, announcing that it is “relaxing all restrictions on the development tools used to create iOS apps, as long as the resulting apps do not download any code.” Exactly what that means has yet to be revealed, but we’ll likely learn more very soon.

One of the big looming questions: does this mean Adobe’s Flash-based hero-to-zero Packager for iPhone will stage a triumphant comeback? Or will Adobe announce that it has had enough of Apple’s shenanigans and is perfectly happy in the strong, loving arms of its new beau, Android? (Perhaps a Harlequin romance novel cover graphic is apropos, I’d better start the Google search now.)

Apple also announced that it would allow at least a tiny bit of light to shine into its notoriously opaque app review process, thus revealing the arcane rituals and sacrifices necessary to get an app approved for the App Store. My guess is that it involves heaping piles of plantains and pig carcasses in an offering to appease the angry Jobs, who dances about in a loincloth speaking in tongues, stopping only to occasionally answer a random buffoon’s angry email rant. Just speculating, though.

» Statement by Apple on App Store Review Guidelines

Flash’s much-heralded, much-delayed appearance on Android with Froyo has received its share of attention, from both overly optimistic and relentlessly critical sources, and it’s difficult to give it a clear assessment at this point. A variety of videos have shown Flash running reasonably well, while others show it with its pants down around its ankles. The best verdict you can give it right now is, it depends on what you’re trying to do.

Apple’s argument has long been that Flash’s performance is not up to snuff on mobile devices, and there’s plenty of evidence to support that position. Even with the 10.1 update, many Flash-based sites run poorly, especially when playing video. Errors, choppy playback, failure to load and other problems are common. GigaOM’s Ryan Lawler, cutting to the chase as he presents a video by Kevin Tofel struggling with several different video sites on his Nexus One, concludes:

While in theory Flash video might be a competitive advantage for Android users, in practice it’s difficult to imagine anyone actually trying to watch non-optimized web video on an Android handset, all of which makes one believe that maybe Steve Jobs was right to eschew Flash in lieu of HTML5 on the iPhone and iPad.

However, I had another sort of experience with Flash on Android this weekend, which proves (at least to me) that there’s another side to the story.

I had recently shown my Web Foundation class the nifty Flash-based interactive video for “Sleepeater” by the New Zealand band Shihad. The song got stuck in my head, and I wanted to download it; and it happened, as these things often do these days, while I was in my car. (No, I wasn’t driving at the time.) However, the band’s latest album won’t be released for a few weeks, and a search on iTunes via my iPhone turned up nothing. (The song is actually available in the New Zealand iTunes store, but a kiwi I am not.)

So, I turned to the most logical source in a situation like this: MySpace. As luck would have it, Shihad’s MySpace page had the song in its music player, and it didn’t care what country I’m in. The MySpace music player, as you are probably aware, is Flash-based. I loaded their page on my Dolphin HD browser, scrolled over to the player, and tapped it to download the Flash piece, which went relatively smoothly. After it appeared, I tapped the song in the playlist, and after a bit more non-Flash-related fumbling to turn on the sound, my car filled with the song I would otherwise be unable to hear.

Now, the experience was not fantastic — the player is slow, it’s not very responsive, and of course the sound quality is fairly mediocre. But it worked. And the reason why that’s relevant should, I hope, be obvious: there’s an awful lot of content on the Web that’s locked up (or set free, depending on your point of view) in Flash, and many people will want to get to it, sooner or later, on a mobile device.

Apple’s approach is to try to convince the world it doesn’t need Flash content, because people can download an app to do the same thing; but that only works for the content someone has decided to put into an app. The same is true of HTML5 content. Howling reports of atrocious Flash video performance aside, there is a valid reason for wanting to use Flash on a phone, even if the experience is poor. Video and games may not be ideal candidates, admittedly. But the next time you just have to see or hear something on your phone and it happens to be in Flash, Android at least gives you a chance of success that is greater than zero.

That may be faint praise, it may not be a selling point for everyone, but it’s difficult to accept the idea that you should be glad your iPhone and iPad are absolutely, unequivocally unable to play Flash. Rocking out to “Sleepeater” in my car the past few days, I was certainly glad not to be stuck with Apple’s decision.

Android fans have been crowing over a Nielsen report that Android phones outsold the iPhone in the first six months of 2010, and it is likely a harbinger of things to come. Android’s carrier ubiquity and choice of hardware almost guarantee its eventual rise to smartphone OS marketshare leader.

However, the real story for Apple continues to be profit, as a recent report reminds us: Apple earned 48% of mobile hardware revenue in Q2 (you know, where the revenue actually comes from) despite selling only 3% of the units that quarter. The numbers echo its position in the PC market, where it commands 35% of the operating profit with 7% of the market share.

Make no mistake: Apple has enjoyed its position as the king of the smartphone era, and it will certainly not fade quietly. While we haven’t heard any rumblings on the patent lawsuit front in a while, we probably haven’t heard the last of it; like a mama grizzly, Apple is known to aggressively defend its creations when threatened. With the antenna drama mostly behind it, Apple should be able to focus on 7″ iPads or magic levitating iPhones or whatever else it’s cooking up next (my vote is for streaming your iTunes library via LaLa technology, but I’m not holding my breath).

However, even when iOS is no longer the dominant smartphone platform, Apple will still sit at the top of the profit heap, which will give them the capital to thrive even without controlling the market. And the iPhone shares the sheen of attainable luxury with the rest of Apple’s product line, which will likely keep it in the hands of the hip and influential for some time to come.

» Apple Snags 48% of Mobile Profit Pie (GigaOM)

Details about Windows Phone 7 have been sketchy so far – though developer tools and demo units have been out in the wild for some time, the lack of a final SDK and a clear understanding of how it’s all supposed to work have made it difficult to know what to expect. Well, prospective WP7 devs, it must be your birthday, because Microsoft just offered another peek behind the curtain with a series of videos from its Windows Phone Design Days. The seminar included an overview of WP7 development, personas, demo apps and more, including this lovely demo of a USGA golf score app. Below, a bit of YouTubery showing the USGA app in all its movery-flippery:

» Windows Phone Design Days videos (via Engadget)

One of the biggest drawbacks to Web apps on any mobile platform is the lack of a cohesive experience around finding and saving them — unlike iOS and Android, there is no “store” to go to, which means you’re pretty much on your own. Apple’s own list of Web apps is clunky and lacks many of the App Store’s features, and the only other real alternative is spinning the Google roulette wheel and taking your chances.

OpenAppMkt aims to change that, with a simple, store-like way of finding and saving Web apps for your iOS device. Though it’s still in beta and isn’t flush with the selection you’ll find at the major app storefronts, it’s exactly the right approach for bringing Web apps closer to par with their natively-coded cousins, including user reviews and the ability to charge for your apps. Though the site is currently optimized for iOS Web apps, there’s no good reason why this site (or a similar one) couldn’t offer Web apps in flavors for all the major smartphone platforms — after all, Web apps are still the closest thing we have to a “code once, run anywhere” solution for mobile apps.

» OpenAppMkt (via Daring Fireball, TechDirt)

Concept: The HTC 1

July 12th, 2010

Not content with the current crop of versatile-yet-unrefined Android phones, designer Andrew Kim imagines an elegant brass-and-glass enclosure that, among other things, transforms into a desk clock. His thinking is spot-on — surely there must be a market for an Android phone with iPhone-level looks and polish — and though his conceptual evolution of the Sense UI is a bit lacking, his overall effort is a thing of (fake) beauty. My only question is why he chose to anchor himself to an existing brand like HTC instead of letting his imagination really run wild… who needs cease-and-desist orders mucking with their wonderful creations? At any rate… HTC, the gauntlet has been thrown.

Update: Did I mention Kim is an 18-year-old freshman at Detroit’s College for Creative Studies? Damn.

» Design Fabulous (via Engadget)

(Note: NSFW language)

This video, which I can only assume is making the rounds, beautifully encapsulates both the myopic allegiance of some iPhone users to their favorite device, and the unshakable belief among the tech geek set that simply listing another device’s set of superior-on-paper features constitutes an ironclad repudiation of the device in question. (Plus it’s just pleasantly weird in its execution, thanks to Xtra Normal.)

As I’ve pointed out before, for the average user, experience trumps features. “It’s better because it’s better” is a perfectly sound argument, and I believe it’s the primary reason most people buy the iPhone (or most things, really). Like the iPad, it’s an emotional purchase more than a rational one — it simply feels right to the people who love it — and Apple’s deep understanding of this type of purchasing behavior is what keeps them on top.

(Full disclosure: I own an Evo, and will probably also be buying an iPhone 4 before long.)

Update! With a retort from more robotic 3D humanimals.

(After a bit of a hiatus while teaching a summer class, I’m finally back with this overdue overview of print magazines taking the leap to digital.)

Print is dead, at least if you listen to the conventional wisdom of the past decade (or three). But there is still a multitude of things print-style journalism does really well, far better than the lifeless, utilitarian Web content you’re, um, reading right now. Despite the nay-saying of many in the blogoverse that the publishing industry is an old, tired, ancient dinosaur that’s old and tired, magazines are still capable of conveying striking beauty, energy and emotion, while imparting a depth of understanding uncommon on the Web. What’s broken is their business model, not their format, something publishers desperately hope digital magazines may help fix.

The lead-up to the iPad’s launch saw breathtaking visions of the future of publishing from the likes of Wired, Sports Illustrated and VIV, but the reality nearly two months after launch is decidedly less impressive. Wired has finally surfaced with a somewhat scaled-back (but non-Flash) version of its technogeek bible, but Sports Illustrated and VIV nowhere to be found yet. Thus it falls to a ragtag band of hopefuls to start staking out the iPad’s potential as a print-digital crossover. After the break, an overview of some of the most noteworthy attempts, what they get right, and where they fall short.

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iMeaCulpa

May 29th, 2010

The latest blog trend, following on the heels of the popular “Why the iPad is a letdown” articles that were making the rounds in April: the “Why I now love the iPad” article. One such example is a post by venture capitalist Fred Wilson, who wrote a fairly typical iPad pan a month ago, saying:

You give up a lot with the iPad and you don’t get much in return. You lose multi-tasking which is a huge deal for me. I can’t listen to music while I write this. That alone is a showstopper for me. Plus it’s slow as a computer. The apps run slow and so is the browser. That could be my wifi but my MacBook runs on the same wifi network and there’s a noticeable difference in the speed of browsing between them.

A fairly standard critique, echoing statements made by many others in the blogorama. Oh, but what’s this? Fast forward to this week, and all of a sudden, Mr. Wilson has fallen for his little aluminum buddy:

Over the past week, I have fallen in love with the thing. And so I am telling you why…

Part of it is the fact that I can go out on my terrace with a cup of coffee, a glass of lemonade, or a glass of wine and do email in a relaxed mood. If my wife or kids interrupt me, it’s easy to put the thing down and engage in a conversation. The iPad makes using a computer less of a commitment and that has important implications for the way I compute. I like how I feel when I am using the thing.

That difference in the way he evaluated the iPad then and now — first based solely on a cold, left-brain assessment of its features and shortcomings, followed by a more natural, emotional and shared (with his family) understanding of how it impacted his life — is the key to understanding the future of the iPad and the tablet in general.

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