Apps: Success, Sustainability

Microsoft is buying the company that makes the smart keyboard app SwiftKey.

I’ve grown very fond of SwiftKey and use it on the iPhone, iPad and the Xiaomi. Over time it’s gotten better at prediction even on iOS (with the limited flexibility available to it there). It now autocompletes common email addresses, phone numbers, postal addresses, common search phrases and even entire sentences. 

Longevity is a risk with any independent service, and SwiftKey wasn’t any different (even though they have a revenue stream via paid themes). Some of the best independent apps in recent times have sold themselves to larger firms – Tweetie to Twitter (became the official Twitter app), Beluga to Facebook (which became FB Messenger), WhatsApp, Instagram to Facebook again, Flickr to Yahoo, Accompli to Microsoft (became Outlook for iOS & Mac); WunderList and Sunrise to Microsoft again; Mailbox to Dropbox, and on. 

Microsoft has a good buyer’s eye for quality independent apps with a loyal user base. I use all of their acquisitions – Outlook for iOS/Android, WunderList, Sunrise and SwiftKey (though I gave up Sunrise for the excellent – and independent – Fantastical). The question is how long, if at all, these apps will live on independently, in the form and with the, well, independence that attracted their fans in the first place. Sunrise has already been discontinued and folded into the calendar within Outlook. If Microsoft’s bought SwiftKey less for the keyboard itself and more for the AI smarts behind it (and they’ve worked on and trialled some impressive stuff), then the app as we know it is not long for the world. 

Some of this churn is a mere inconvenience for the app’s ‘early adopters’; some of it could be more serious (for those who’ve ‘put their life into’, say, Evernote. In any case, it’s a sign of the incredible ferment in the app space (one that is barely 7 years old), with incredible advances in mobile hardware and software platform capabilities; of how easy it is now to make an app and get it in the hands of people who like, no, love it; of how many ways there are to scratch an itch digitally. What is less clear is how to build a sustainable business around this. The dilemma between giving your app away for free to make it as easy to get started with as possible, and charging enough to cover the costs of making and running it. The dilemma between focusing on a single software platform (iOS or Android) to make the best of what it offers, and building for both (with its attendant compromises and overheads) so everyone who wants to can try it out (and pay!). 

We haven’t had an app-first, mobile-era business that’s sustainable at scale. All of the biggies – Apple, Google, Facebook, Amazon and (doggedly) Microsoft – are all of web vintage, or earlier. Uber likely has the best shot among the mobile-era upstarts.

Postscript:

It’s clear though that as apps are built, sold and abandoned, it’s going to be increasingly important that you be able to move all the information you put into them. It’s simple to experiment with email apps because email a well known standard, and moving from Sparrow to Mailbox to Airmail still means using your same Gmail (or other) email mailbox. Ditto with photo apps because your photo album is right on your phone. Calendar app? The same. But todo apps? Keyboard apps? Messaging apps? Read Later apps? Your Airbnb reputation? Foursquare checking history? Spotify playlists? Uber ride history? All locked in. It goes away with the app.