Apps versus the web

There's an involved, technical and (for people like me) fascinating conversation in tech about smartphone apps and the web - what can each do, how discovery works, how they interplay, what Google plans with Chrome, how watches affect things, whether the web will take over as the dominant form and so on. 

But for an actual brand, developer or publisher wondering if they should do an app or a website, I generally answer that the calculation is much simpler and less technical: 

Do people want to put your icon on their home screen? 

Do you have the kind of relationship, and proposition, that people will want to engage with  enough to put your icon on their phone? If the answer to this is 'yes', then you should have an app - if only because the app store is the way to do that that people understand, and they'll look for you in the app store. Once that app is there, you can leverage all the interesting and sophisticated things that you might do with it, or you might manage the flow of information just like your website, but the app has to be there.

If you don't have that relationship, then all the clever things you can imagine you could do with Apple or Google's new APIs are irrelevant and your strategy should focus on the web (and social). (By extension, of course, there are some people legitimately wondering if they should have their own website - should a plumber be on the web or in Yelp?)

Meanwhile, you should have a website that works well on mobile regardless of whether you also have an app, and that site should give your complete proposition, since that of course is where links from Google and Facebook will take people. Too many companies present the potential customer with a website that says 'screw you, install our app', and then an app store page that says 'screw you, install our app', and then a first-run screen that says 'screw you, create an account/sign in with Facebook'. You do have to earn an install, I think. 

In either of these cases - whether you have an app and a website or just a website, you should presume that your customers will engage with you only on mobile. A large proportion of smartphone use happens on wifi and either at home or at work - people use mobile to snack, yes, but they also use it to do almost anything they do on the desktop internet. So your mobile proposition should not start from thinking 'what would people want when they're mobile?, but rather on 'this customer may only see us on mobile, so how do we shape our proposition to reflect that?". Indeed, as I wrote here, it's not mobile that gets the cut-down, basic experience - it's the PC. 

Mobile first

We've always thought about the mobile internet as a limited thing compared to the desktop internet, because of the constraints of hardware and network. Today, obviously, those constraints are a lot less than they were in the featurephone world, but it can still feel natural to talk of the PC as the most fully-featured version of the internet, and mobile as the place where you have to make lots of allowances for limitations of various kinds, just as for a smart watch. We make things 'mobile-first' because that's where the time and attention is, because that's where the use is and because mobile phones are in everyone's pockets and PCs (even laptops) are chained to desks, but it's still somehow a place with limits relative to the desktop. 

I'd suggest that we should think about inverting this - it's actually the PC that has the limited, basic, cut-down version of the internet. 

First, for 20 years the internet, on a PC, essentially meant a web browser, mouse and keyboard. There were other things happening around the margins, such as Skype and Spotify (and, for some people, email apps), but the web model was dominant. On a smartphone this is clearly no longer the case (which is why I sometimes call smartphones post-Netscape and post-PageRank). The interaction model is much more complex and sophisticated, and it continues to change all the time - Now, iBeacons, notifications, deep links, Apple Pay and Touch ID, keyboards and extensions and so on keep adding to and changing the options. Some of these new capabilities can get added back onto the PC, but many cannot, or arrive much later. 

Second, a smartphone knows much more than a PC did. There's an old computer science saying that a computer should never ask you a question that it should be able to work out the answer to; a smartphone can work out much more. It can see who your friends are, where you spend your time, what photos you've taken, whether you're walking or running and what your credit card is. The sensors, APIs and data that are available (with permission - mostly) to a service you want to use on a smartphone are vastly greater than for a website isolated within a web browser on a PC. Each of those sensors and APIs creates a new business, or many new businesses, that could not exist on a PC. 

The earliest and most obvious expression of this is the explosion of mobile social apps, almost none of which would have worked on a PC, yet which flourish on a smartphone because, as I frequently point out, the smartphone itself is a social platform - every app can see your friend list, access your camera, send you notifications and sit on the home screen two taps away from any other screen on your phone, so the friction of adopting them and of using more than one at once falls away.

But actually, one could generalize this beyond social - the smartphone itself is an internet platform in a way that a PC was not. On a PC the web browser was the internet platform, but on a smartphone it's the entire device and the browser is turned from 'the internet' to one icon, just a phone calls turned from the purpose of the device to just one icon.

That means that instead of thinking about the constraints of mobile - of the things you can't do because the screen is smaller and there's no keyboard - we should rather think of the PC as having the basic, cut-down, limited version of the internet, because it only has the web. It's the mobile that has the whole internet. 

Connecting the next billion

A nicely unpolished video from Digicel Papua New Guinea on what connecting the next billion actually means.

In no particular order: 

  • People steal the solar panels (this is an even bigger problem with diesel generators)
  • The network goes down if it rains for too long 
  • Access to power of any kind is crucial for your users
  • How many different distribution networks does a mobile operator have to build?
  • Most of those sites probably aren't going to be able to handle everyone in the area watching YouTube (hence - data pricing, zero-rating and the problem with net neutrality)

In the next 5-10 years, almost every single person you see on the screen is going to own a smartphone. What they pay for data, and how they think about charging, is another matter. Meanwhile, one might suggest that for some of them a mobile phone is the first electrical device of any kind they've owned. 

What does Google need on mobile?

I generally look at Google as a vast machine learning engine that’s been stuffed with data for a decade and a half. Everything that Google does is about reach for that underlying engine - reach to get data in and reach to surface it out. The legacy web search is just one expression of that, and so is the search advertising, and so are Gmail and Maps -  they’re all built onto that underlying asset. 

Hence, most of the experiments that Google has launched over the years are best seen as tests to see if they fit this model. Can you apply a vast expertise in understanding data, large numbers of computer scientists and data scientists, lots of infrastructure and a model of total automation and get something interesting and useful - can you get massive amounts of new data in, can you do something unique with it, and can you surface it back out? And, for all of these, are you solving hard, important problems with global scale? 

That is, Google tests new opportunities to see if they fit in the same way that a shark bites a surfer to see if they’re a seal. If not, you don’t change Google to fit the opportunity - you spit out the surfer (or what’s left of him). 

Naturally, sometimes it turns out that you need other capabilities - e.g. radio advertising. Sometimes it ought to be a good opportunity but the friction in actually unlocking the data is too great - e.g. Google Health, where there were too many different and reluctant parties involved. Sometimes Google's skills are just a condition of entry and other skills are more important (Google Plus in social), and sometimes the opportunity is just too small - e.g. Google Reader. But equally, there are projects for which Google's core skills and needs have fit very well. Maps had little obvious to do with web search and nothing to do with PageRank, but was a big problem that Google’s assets could be applied to (and of course, a decade later, Maps turned out to have huge strategic leverage in mobile). The same may be true of self-driving cars - this is not a search question, but it is a data and machine intelligence problem where Google is uniquely placed to do things (or at any rate, that’s what Google believes). 

Android embodies all of this. Originally, it was about reach, in the sense of people being able to use Google. It existed to head off domination of mobile by any third party that might shut Google out (first Microsoft, then Apple) and to enable the expansion of the internet from 1.5bn PCs owned by relatively rich people to, in the next few years from now, 4-5bn mobile phones owned by almost every adult on earth. In both of those aims it’s been an enormous success, much more than any other Google side-project. Apple will have a lot of the top 15-20% of the market, but Android will have almost all of the rest and serves to keep Apple honest even on iOS. 

Over time Android has also evolved to provide reach in collecting data as well - you’re always logged in to Google on your Android phone, and it knows where you are when you do that search or open that app, and where everyone else who ever did that search was, and what they did next (this is one reason why retaining control of the Android UI, and heading off forks, matters to Google). There’s an old computer science saying that a computer should never ask a question that it should be able to work out the answer to - the sensors and other capabilities in smartphones in general and Android in particular massively expand the range of things that Google can work out. So, Android transforms Google’s reach both in collecting and surfacing data. 

The interesting part, though, is that there are now lots of different kinds of reach. 

First, as everyone has talked about for years, the way that mobile moves us away from the plain old web as the dominant interaction model of the internet challenges Google’s central ability to understand the structure of online information and to link to it (and sell links to it). Apps cut off Google’s reach, both to get data into its systems, since apps are opaque, and to surface data out to internet users, since any search in Yelp’s specialist app is a search that wasn’t on Google, and such apps are stronger on mobile than on the desktop. Apps reduce Google’s reach in both senses. This of course is why (like Facebook) it has been pursuing deep links, and is probably also one reason why it is keeping Chrome OS warm as a standby mobile platform. But it also means that Google has conflicting incentives - as a provider of services, should it try always to make things as part of the web, or embrace the new experiences that apps and everything else happening on smartphones can provide? What would the web search team say if Hangouts became a development platform, for example? 

Furthermore, ownership of an actual mobile platform creates more basic conflicts - should Google make a new app for iOS first, given that’s where many of the most engaged users are? Should it provide it for ‘forked' devices such as the Kindle Fire, if they have enough users, though that erodes a point of leverage for control of Android? For these kinds of questions it’s easy to see how individual product managers might have incompatible objectives - the Maps PM probably wants Maps to be great on iOS and might well like it on Kindle, but people thinking about maintaining Google’s control over Android clearly would not. 

That is, how much does Google need to pull things to the web, or, alternatively, to Android, and how much should it let the logic of individual product teams prevail - and where there's conflict between product teams, who wins?

These are really classic ‘strategy tax’ questions. A product feature conflicts with the company’s overall strategy, so do you leave out the feature (and so pay the strategy tax) or compromise the strategy? To give examples from other ages of the tech industry, Microsoft's Office for Mac and Apple's iTunes for Windows both in theory undermined those companies' core products, but both were the right thing to do for the broader strategy. The question for Google is to work out which part is the tactic and which is the strategy. What kind of reach do you want, and which sacrifices to you want to make?

This problem reminds me of a book published a few years ago by Pierre Bayard, a French academic, called ‘How to talk about books you haven’t read’ (review). His observation is that the question ‘have you read this book?’ is actually much less binary than it appears: if you compare a book you read as a teenager 20 years ago and half-understood with a book that’s just come out and that you’ve read 3 reviews of, but haven’t actually read, you might know rather more about the latter than the former. There are books you read and understood, books you’ve read and half-remember, books you can’t remember that you’ve read at all, and books that you’ve read half of, or know the key ideas of, or have heard about, or that you know are exactly the same as three others by the same author that you really have read. Reading and knowing about a book are not binary. 

In the same sense, Google needs reach, but mobile means that there are lots of different kinds of reach. Consider someone who has an ‘official’ Android phone, perhaps even a Nexus, and is completely logged in - so Google has ‘perfect’ reach to them as an end-point. But, as I wrote here, suppose they live in a quiet suburb and drive only to work and to a few shops, never use Calendar, open Maps once a month and get a few personal emails in Gmail each week. Now contrast that with a 20-something in a big city who loves their iPhone and is not logged into any Google service - but is on this phone for hours every day, uses Google Maps (or maybe just apps that embed it) and is doing web search all the time. What kind of reach does Google have for these two? 

Then, consider a farmer in rural Myanmar who’s just got their first phone: a $30 Android, with enough spending power to get perhaps 50 megs of cellular data a month, if that. What is that reach worth - what do they search for, what can the information they provide to Google be used for and, to raise the boring, pedantic question, how much are they worth to the advertising industry? Are they a higher priority than extending Google Now to the Apple Watch? 

The key change in all of this, I think, is that Google has gone from a world of almost perfect clarity - a text search box, a web-link index, a middle-class family’s home - to one of perfect complexity - every possible kind of user, device, access and data type. It’s gone from a firehose to a rain storm. But on the other hand, no-one knows water like Google. No-one else has the same lead in building understanding of how to deal with this. Hence, I think, one should think of every app, service, drive and platform from Google not so much as channels that might conflict but as varying end-points to a unified underlying strategy, which one might characterize as ‘know a lot about how to know a lot’. 

Another way to think about this, perhaps, is the comparison with Internet Explorer. Microsoft was entirely successful in ensuring that its own web browser dominated the internet for a decade or so. But really, whatever browser people ran, they were going to run it on a Windows PC anyway, because what other mass-market global platform was there? So too for Google: what matters is to win at 'search', whatever that means and wherever and however far from PageRank that leads you. Nail that and reach will come to you - get it wrong, or find yourself irrelevant in whatever the new new is (as happened eventually to Microsoft), and nothing else will matter. 

Messaging and mobile platforms

One of the fundamental things that smartphones changed about the internet is that the smartphone itself is a social platform:

  • Every app can access your address book, getting an instant social graph. The phone number in particular acts as a unique social identifier
  • They can access the photo library and camera directly (and location), making sharing easy 
  • Push notifications mean you don’t need people to keep checking your site (or open emails).  
  • Every app is just two taps away on the home screen, which makes switching services easier, and also drives a trend for focused, single-purpose apps over apps that do everything - it's easier to find a feature as an icon on your home screen than as an option in a sub-menu of the Facebook app

So joining a new service from a different company is much easier than it was on the desktop and, crucially, using more than one at a time is also much easier. People can swap apps in and out for different behaviours or content types or social groups, on top of that underlying platform, and they do it all the time. And so there has been an explosion of apps trying to take advantage of this. Facebook bought two of the biggest, Instagram and WhatsApp, but it can't buy them all. 

Looking at all of these apps, I think there are three threads that we can pull out:

  • More or less plain vanilla person-to-person text messaging, with extras like group chat, pictures, stickers and voice clips etc added on. The big global winner so far has clearly been WhatsApp, which dominates outside the USA and East Asia (and is doing 50% more message volume than the entire global SMS system), but Facebook Messenger is doing pretty well too, mostly in the USA. I'd expect relatively little new innovation to happen here now, and most of it to be in the next two categories:
  • New pieces of psychology - new behaviors or attitudes that an app can enable or ride on. Sitting on that underlying social platform, an app that finds one of these can go viral. Examples include Instagram, Snapchat, Yo, Yik Yak, Secret or Meerkat. The challenge for these is to find a behavior that's different and compelling enough to create that growth, but not weird or specific enough to be a gimmick or a fad and flame out, or at least to evolve beyond that specificity once the growth is there, which one could argue Snapchat is doing
  • Platforms - messaging apps that aim to broaden the UX beyond pure person-to-person messaging into a development environment. WeChat is the big example here, with 500m users, almost all in China, while Line in Japan and Kik in the USA are also significant. 

The potential to turn messaging into a platform is the Trojan Horse that drives a lot of the excitement in the sector. It's one thing to sell stickers and quite another to sell users: can you use social to spread content and acquire users, and to solve the problem of app installation? Can it become the third runtime and the third channel on the phone, after the web and native apps?

The first big success here has been WeChat, which has 500m MAUs, almost all in China. WeChat has built a messaging client that's also a development environment, using web views and APIs so you can build services within the app that can access location, identity, payment and other tools from within the app. You can send money, order a cab, book a restaurant or track and manage an ecommerce order, all within one social app. So, like the web, you don't need to install new apps to access these services, but, unlike the web, they can also use push and messaging and social to spread. This is Facebook's old desktop platform, more or less, but on mobile. 

The common criticism of this approach is that this is 'just a portal', and that integrating lots of different services into one app is doomed in the same way that Yahoo on the desktop was doomed to be replaced by more powerful and focused single-purpose products. The more subtle version of this is that WeChat only works in China because the market structure is different - no vertical category killers (Google, Facebook, Amazon) and instead parallel, horizontal competition by large competing companies. WeChat is providing the 'primitives' that you can't get elsewhere. This may be true - but it may also be that WeChat (and similar products such as Baidu Maps, which also has deep service integration) show us what the rest of the world might look like if the big portals had executed better. That is, is this what Yahoo would have achieved if it hadn't gone to sleep for a decade? *

A lot of people thought that Facebook would clone this, but it's actually done something quite different. Rather than trying to turn Messenger itself into a development environment, it's opened it up to become a channel for anything else on your phone and the web. This means that it's addressing both the platform thread and the viral apps thread outlined above, and that rather than WeChat, it's going after the iOS and Android notifications panel. 

First, if you have an idea for a great type of content for messaging - a new piece of psychology that might go viral - your iPhone or Android app can now insert that directly into a thread inside the Messenger app, and your app can be invoked directly from within the Messenger app. Messenger has a list of featured apps (with links out to the App Store or Google Play) and, crucially, each piece of content posted into a message thread comes with a link to install the app - a viral hook. Facebook has made an API for the 'sticker button', and turned it into an acquisition channel for third party apps, and is now letting the entire internet compete for that slot, with itself as gatekeeper.

 The WeChat model achieves some of this, avoiding the app installation problem itself by putting everything into web views within the WeChat app, but that puts a cap on how sophisticated you can get - it's hard to make video clips with web apps. Facebook is trying to square the circle - rich native code to make cool stuff, yet no need for an app installation for it to spread. 

This is a great jujitsu move, and very seductive. Facebook is trying to co-opt the next Snapchat. Yes, the smartphone is a social platform that makes it easy to use multiple social apps, but you still have to get someone over the hurdle of installing the app in the first place, and they have to get all of their friends to install it too so that they have someone to send to.  Facebook is trying to bypass that - you can drop your content straight into the existing Messenger install base (600m MAUs). Now just one person can get a cool app and send messages to their friends even if their friends don't have it, and if it's cool enough they can tap on the link and install it too.

So acquisition is much easier, but they're Facebook's users, and always will be. And since there will be dozens of apps fighting it out for that slot, Snapchat and any other new stand-alone network will be competing against all of those apps - against the whole app store. This means that Facebook is trying to reset some of the dynamics I described at that beginning of this piece - it's trying to avoid the 'whack-a-mole' problem of having to buy cool new messaging companies (Instagram, WhatsApp) by getting those communication forms to happen inside Messenger instead, using Facebook's own social graph instead of the phone's address book.  And as I said, this is seductive - Facebook removes a major barrier to growth, but owns your users and has a history of ruthlessness in dealing partners who build on its platforms. Join, get growth 'easily' and give Facebook control, or stay out and struggle for installs against Facebook and all its partners as well. 

The second part of the Messenger announcement is just as interesting - Facebook will also let websites send messages directly into Messenger, without having their own apps installed on your phone, if you logged into that website with Facebook when you placed the order. So you can order shoes and get a message in Messenger that they're out of stock and be offered an alternative. This is another attack on email (and Gmail) and another attempt to pull your communications and commerce into the Facebook data platform. And again, if you do this you get richer and more engaging communication with your users, and don't need them to install your app, but your access is entirely controlled by Facebook.  

If you take all of this together, it looks like Facebook is trying not to compete with other messaging apps but to relocate itself within the landscape of both messaging and the broader smartphone interaction model. Facebook Home tried to take over the home screen and lock screen - Messenger is trying to take over the notifications panel, by pulling those notifications inside its own app, and to co-opt large chunks of future communications developments on the phone.  

This makes perfect sense - notifications themselves are becoming that third runtime. That pull-down panel aggregates activity from everything on your phone, and Google and Apple have made notifications actionable and given them payloads. One can already look at an iPhone or Android phone's notification screen and ask - 'where's the algorithm filtering this?' And in a sense, the notification panel fills the 'cross platform compatibility' role that some people would like to see in messaging - all the notifications for all my messaging apps show up there. More and more, one's primary interaction with any app, social messaging or otherwise, is a little pop-up with a button or two. So shouldn't that get a native, messaging-focused UI? Instead of replacing stand-alone apps with light-weight versions built inside a messaging app, is it better for rich, actionable messages from native apps to be aggregated into a notification panel? Once you have that runtime, do you need an actual stand-alone app on the actual phone itself, or can you send those messages - really, little applets, down from the cloud? Do you turn apps into messages and notifications, or messages and notifications into apps?

Meanwhile, smart watches (to the extent that they take off) reinforce a model of atomic units of content with a handful of possible actions, and of glancing at a few key items rather than submerging yourself in a dedicated UI. So after unbundling sites from the web browser into apps, notifications take things further, unbundling each unit of content or action - each verb or noun - into a separate atom. So you can order a car with a flick of your wrist and a tap or two, instead of fishing your phone out of your pocket, unlocking it, loading an app and navigating the UI. 

This obviously leads one to ask what the platform owners themselves are doing. Should this be done by Facebook or the platform owners (the same question as for deep linking last year)? Do Apple or Google introduce an algorithmic filter to manage the flow in the system-wide notification panel, and does that compare to Facebook's lethal power over newsfeed partners? They're some of the way there. Both Apple and Google have perfectly solid mobile messaging apps that are not development platforms in their own right, and have done a lot of work on notifications in their smartphone OSs yet clearly have lots more to do. And Apple already lets websites send push notifications on OS X, while Google is clearly pushing Chrome hard as a development environment and so notifications from the web there would also make sense. 

So we can see some building blocks, but we can also see obstacles. The obvious one is that neither has the kind of desktop social presence that would make it easy for them to drive personalized push motivations for web to mobile - you're not logged into anything from Apple or Google (pace Plus) when you shop on the desktop web. On the other hand, you're always logged in on Android, and Apple has shown plenty of hints that it might see TouchID as a universal identity platform, and of course, they do have your address book. So Apple or Google could easily let an app send a push notification to a friend who doesn't have that app. Meanwhile as mobile devices zoom past half of time spent on commerce sites and a third of the transaction value, a web identity platform might matter less. There are other interesting possibilities too, if one thinks where Now or Passbook might fit. 

The core issue across all of this, I think, is how much is still totally unsettled. We spent 20 years in which the mainstream internet experience was a web browser, mouse and keyboard, and over a decade in which Google was the way you navigated. Smartphones ended all that, but we haven't settled on a new model, and the idea we'll all revert back to the comfortable, simple model of the web seems increasingly remote. Even within messaging, the  model is still in flux. I wrote above about the search for new psychologies, but there are deeper architectural questions than anonymity or filters, which you can see in SnapChat's disappearing messages or Meerkat and Periscope's use of live. What will the next blow-up model be -  synchronous or not? One to one or one to many? Feed based or thread-based? Algorithmic filter or endless stream? Rich client or rich message? Runtime or deep links? That may be the real problem for Facebook - the next messaging thing may not be messaging at all. 


* As an aside, it's challenging for anyone outside China to have a firm view on WeChat given that almost no-one has actually used it - the most interesting features only appear if you run the app with Chinese language settings. I don’t read Chinese myself, and I’m always reluctant to have a strong view on a product I’ve not used, though this is a minority position.

Android taxonomies

For reference, and, perhaps, discussion: 'Android' means lots of different things, and there's a lot of confusion about forks, Xiaomi, China and AOSP, as well as 'the next billion'. So this is how I try to think about this. First, there are actually (at least) six types of 'Android' in the market today:

  1. 'Stock' Android, as seen on Google's Nexus devices, complete with Google services (but with tiny unit sales)
  2. 'Modified' Android, as seen on phones from Samsung, Sony, LG etc, complete with Google services - generally, these are modifications that no-one especially likes, but which Google explicitly allows 
  3. 'AOSP' or open Android, as seen in China - essentially these phones are the same as number 2, but with no Google services and apps from the Chinese portals embedded instead. Hence Samsung, Sony etc sell their phones in China without Google services, but few other changes
  4.  (or perhaps 3.1) 'Modified' Android as seen on Xiaomi phones and those of its followers, which people actually seek out, and which comes without Google services in China and with them elsewhere
  5. ROMs and third-party implementations of Android that are available for any handset, such as both Xiaomi's MIUI and Cyanogen (an a16z portfolio company), which may or may not have Google services included or accessible. Again, these contain optimisations and improvements that make people seek them out
  6. Forked Android, such as the Kindle Fire phone: Android heavily modified to produce a different experience, and Google refuses to allow Google services to run on them (other than plain old web search, AKA POWS). Note that Xiaomi and Cyanogen are not forks. 

Th first two or perhaps three I would describe as 'closed' Android and the second three are 'open' Android, certainly from the perspective of device manufacturers. The first two (actually just number 2) have over a billion users outside China (as of the numbers given at IO last summer). Versions 3 and 4 have a further 400-500m users, almost all in China, and there are perhaps 50m users of 5 ( a very rough estimate) both inside and outside China, partly overlapping with the others. Six - well, ask Amazon. 

In parallel, it's worth breaking down Android users in a similar way:

  1. ROM users (very roughly, perhaps 50m people)
  2. People who like to install the kinds of apps that do things Apple doesn't allow on iOS and Google does allow on Android (note that Apple now allows rather more things and Google does not, oddly, allow gambling apps). I had a go at quantifying this here
  3. People with a personal preference for Android, who none-the-less do not actually install ROMs or do many things that are blocked on iOS (the difference between this and 2 is a grey area, obviously)
  4. People who don't actually care very much one way or the other between Android and iOS, and (for example) got a good deal, preferred the handset design or (especially) the larger screen size that used only to be available on Android, and indeed might switch back and forth between iOS and Android 
  5. People who can't afford iPhones or other high-end phones and so got Android as the cheaper option. 
  6. People who actually don't care about smartphones at all, and so just bought a 'cheap phone' (or just a  phone with a good camera, say), and happened to get an Android since it's taken over most of the mid range and low-end, and who don't do much with the ecosystem
  7. People in emerging markets who really can't afford anything other than a $50 or $100 Android phone but are enthusiastically taking advantage of everything it can do.  
  8. As above, but have a relatively expensive data plan, limited 3G coverage and, often, limited access to power to charge their phone (this one is is where the 'next billion' will sit) 

 Some of these categories (but obviously not all) also apply to iOS, of course, but selling phones only at $600 for the latest model creates a more uniform customer base. 

Layered across both of these is huge geographic variation. The must-have phone for teenagers in San Francisco and Jakarta is very different. But the underlying point about both lists is that tech and mobile have grown far past the point that there is really a single market for anything. When you connect everybody you get, well, everybody, and they're not all like you. 

Why is Apple making a gold watch?

As expected, the gold version of Apple’s watch is very expensive by consumer technology standards - $10,000 and up, depending on the band you take. And, also as expected, this made a lot of people’s heads explode. 

There are really two different conversations here: will people buy a $10,000 Apple watch, and why did Apple make one? 

To the first question, Apple is clearly breaking lots of rules with the watch. There are plenty of $10k watches on the market already that sell just fine, but those are normally mechanical ones, and mechanical watches are sold primarily on the complexity of the mechanism, where of course the gold Apple watch is internally identical to the $350 aluminium model. Mechanical watches are also expected to last: no-one quite knows how long an Apple watch will last (the battery is replaceable, but is the screen? And how long will the software be viable?) but it’s probably not something that your grandchildren will own*.

On the other hand, there is no a priori reason why a watch should have to follow those rules. Plenty of other $10,000 luxury items are far more ephemeral, and once you're selling things for other than purely utilitarian reasons questions like 'value' and 'resale' miss the point. Apple is certainly trying something that’s new to both the tech industry and the luxury goods industry, but it's not necessarily outside the bounds of (rich) consumer behaviour. If we only ever bought things that had rational use cases and the best value, we'd all be wearing boiler suits, or hoodies. 

Ultimately, though, how many people buy the gold one is probably immaterial. The Swiss watch industry sells about half a million precious metal watches a year, and though the size of the overall watch market is not a good indicator of the market potential for smart watches, the size of the market for precious metal watches is probably not far off as an indicator for the gold Apple watch. Even a hundred thousand gold Apple watches at (say) $15k each would be ‘only’ $1.5bn a year, or less than one percent of Apple’s 2014 revenue.  

So (and this is the question that actually matters) why bother? One could argue that it’s a vanity project, or that Apple’s doing this just because it can, or that a few hundred million dollars still matters at Apple (as indeed it does). But I think it’s more interesting to compare it with Apple retail. Despite its prominence, this is only about 10% of Apple’s revenue. It’s much more important as marketing. And it's great marketing. 

Apple stores are huge rich-media billboards on every major shopping street in the developed world: I can't think of any other company that has shops as big as that in such premium locations in as many places. Apple retail is a self-funding marketing operation. So too, perhaps, is the gold watch. Apple might only sell a few tens of thousands, but what impression does it create around the $1,000 watch, or the $350 watch? After all, the luxury goods market is full of companies whose most visible products are extremely expensive, but whose revenue really comes from makeup, perfume and accessories. You sell the $50k (or more) couture dress (which may be worn once), but you also sell a lot of lipsticks with the brand halo (and if you think Apple’s margins are high, have a look at the gross margins on perfume). 

Meanwhile, though other companies are already making metal smart watches, I struggle to imagine Samsung making solid gold watches. Apple's brand might or might not work there, but no other CE company's does. That is, if this is marketing, and if it works, it's marketing that no-one else can do. 

On another tack, perhaps the biggest message that this sends is that the Apple watch is not a technology product. It’s a post-‘feeds and speeds’ product. Today we have prices and release dates for the watch but no tech specs at all - because they’re irrelevant to the user experience. This is a product sold on delight, and experience, and on the feel and pleasure of owning and wearing it and looking at it (which of course means Apple retail is a huge advantage). It’s sold on a butterfly, not on the storage capacity. The value of the gold may be just that message - it’s not a geek’s product at all. One might call the gold a marketing detox - an emancipation of tech from the tech industry.

Finally, whatever your opinion of all this, it doesn’t really matter. Apple’s watch is, after all, coming to market at a lower entry price than any previous new category from Apple. So we can go out and buy it for $350 or $1,000 and get on with working out what, beyond delight, it’s good for - how it changes attribution, and user acquisition, and dwell time, and changes how you use your smartphone, and all the shifting metrics of the mobile internet. 


* There was some speculation that Apple might have a plan here - that it might buy back the gold watches, or replace the insides, perhaps - because a $10,000 object that's outdated is different to one that's $600. This may well still happen. 

Why do we care about Xiaomi?

'If you have nothing to tell us, but that on the banks of the Oxus and the Jaxartes, one barbarian has been succeeded by another barbarian, in what respect do you benefit the public?' - Voltaire

The Android smartphone business can feel like it's a rerun of the PC business, but compressed into 5 years instead of 20 or 30. The component layer is mostly a commodity, especially below the high end, and so is the operating system layer, and manufacturers are stuck in the middle, all of them using the same basic components and the same software (Windows for PCs, Android for phones), and so unable to differentiate on much beyond than price. The result is a race to the bottom with distribution, marketing and manufacturing scale the bases of competition. 

Today, Samsung's dominance of Android (with close to half of unit sales) appears to have peaked and a wave of companies appear to be able to use the entire Shenzhen manufacturing cluster or ecosystem to achieve many of the benefits of scale without having vast factories themselves. We see this in Chinese companies such as Xiaomi, OnePlus or Gionee, and also in local companies around the world that are having their phones made in China and basing their business on branding and distribution - some examples are Micromax in India, Cherry in the Philippines, Blu in Latin America or Wiko in France, which claims over 10% market share. Many of these are simply picking standard models from the big contractors in China and adding a brand - hence one big OEM told me 'when those guys say they designed it, they mean they went to Foxconn and asked for models 4, 23 and 39'. It's not clear quite how big you can get on this model, nor how like the PC clone business (i.e. eventually consolidated) it will end up. Equally importantly, it's far from clear how global these companies will be, but that may not matter. 

In this environment, just as in the PC business, some companies and some business models do better than others, but that doesn't necessarily matter to anyone else further up the stack. Gateway 2000 disappeared and Dell prospered, but that didn't much matter to PC buyers, let alone software developers or anyone on the web. Equally, Samsung rose to dominance and now slips, Lenovo buys Motorola and invests in mobile, HTC faltered and Sony goes sideways and Chinese OEMs are rising, but the phones keep coming.

(This issue is also one of the problems with Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, from which I've just returned. When I started going to this conference, in 2000, operators and handset makers drove the agenda for the whole consumer experience and the show was the place to see that, but today that agenda is driven at Google IO, Apple's WWDC and, perhaps, Facebook's F8.) 

So these companies, XIaomi included, are interesting to people who are interested in the handset business, then, but why do they matter to anyone else? Xiaomi sold 75m phones last year, yes, but isn't it just another OEM with a new branding and distribution model, and its rise relative to Samsung, say, no more interesting to anyone not in the handset business than the rise of Dell relative to IBM's PC division was? And it's mostly in China, for now  - isn't it just one 'barbarian' defeating another in a far away place

Well, up to a point. Though it's certainly possible to get over-excited about Xiaomi, this sort of dismissal misses several important threads worth pulling on. 

First, PC OEMs mostly failed to differentiate in design, and this has also been true of the Android market (and especially of the biggest OEMs), but the Chinese appear to be learning design, and quickly. Xiaomi, Gionee and several other companies are making phones that are visually appealing, using materials and finishes to differentiate from the run of black plastic rectangles that predominate in Android below the high-end (there are several consultancies composed of former Nokia people serving this market). A couple of these phones look superficially similar to Apple products - most do not. They're nice-looking, interesting, and half the price. (Interestingly, the way this has played out in China so far is that Samsung's share has fallen fast but Apple's has grown: they're selling to different customers.) 

Second, PC OEMs never managed to create any meaningful differentiation in software, and neither again did the Android OEMs, but Xiaomi has, and so have some of its imitators. The difference is that unlike most previous OEM attempts at software, they are not trying to compete with the whole internet. Instead of relying on vertical point solutions (photo editing and music services etc, though it does have some of these too), Xiaomi builds a thin horizontal layer between the commodity AOSP OS and third party applications. It has rebuilt the Android front-end - the whole UI from the launcher and notification panel down to the preference panels - to make it simpler and cleaner, changing the experience of using Android. This sometimes looks superficially rather similar to iOS 7, but this is a little misleading, which is hard to get from screenshots: a big part of the uniqueness is the animation. A Xiaomi phone feels very different from an iPhone or 'stock' Android phone, across the whole experience.

In addition, Xiaomi has packaged together a suite of integrated OS-level services that remix what Google and Apple provide in a similarly integrated way. In this it is of course helped by the fact that those Google services are mostly unavailable inside China and Apple's require you to spend 2-3x more on a phone. People tend to talk a lot about Xiaomi's services as a way to sell the phones at lower prices, but we know from various leaks that the revenue from these is actually immaterial, at  least for now - the point again is the experience that they give. 

It's a common reflex in the USA to call Xiaomi and similar companies copycats, on both a hardware and software level, and there's certainly a lot of design inspiration going on, but dismissing these phones as rip-offs is rather lazy. When you actually hold them and use them you would never mistake them for iPhones, any more than you'd mistake a $500 coat or bag for the $2,000 example that sometimes inspires the colour or trim. You can sometimes see where it came from, but it's not the same, nor is it trying to be. Rather, they deliver a similar approach to the user experience at a lower price in a way that's often been absent from Android so far (it's hard not to look at some of Nokia's beautiful Lumia devices and wonder what impact they might have had on Apple if they'd run Android).   

The result of this is that we now appear to have at least a couple of Chinese companies doing what was supposed not to be possible - low-margin companies using commodity components and a commodity OS, yet achieving differentiation in design, software and services. Looking at China always challenges your assumptions about what's inevitable in technology. Hardware companies doing good software and UI? Commodity box-shifters learning design? How far might that spread? 

Finally, this shift in what handsets might look like also has a broader implication: the spread of new types of Android OEM might change Google's control of Android. 

Historically, Google's lock on Android outside China has therefore been based on three things: 

  • You can't experiment outside very tight constraints: making even one forked device means Google won't allow you to sell a single phone running Google services. And all the OEMs have too much to lose to risk experimenting
  • There's a widespread belief that an Android device without Google services (really, this means Maps and the app store) is unsaleable outside China (I'm not entirely sure about this, as I wrote here)
  • No OEM managed to build a compelling set of services or tools of its own that might offer alternatives to Google, because, well, that was impossible (see above)

These new trends place all of those in question. The growth of smaller operators pursuing different models, with no existing base of sales and hence nothing to fear from  Google ban, may mean more experiments with forks. Xiaomi and its imitators point to a new potential model to differentiate (and note that Xiaomi is not a fork), and Cyanogen (an a16z portfolio company) offers the tools to do it. Smaller OEMs are less powerful than Samsung as a counterpart to Google, but also harder collectively to impose upon - Google can't shout at them all. This isn't to say that I necessarily expect to there to be lots of local attempts at the Kindle Fire, but we may start seeing a lot less uniformity in how Android comes to market, and what it looks like.