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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.


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. 

Idea, Product, Business

Your division starts off on a new project with a bang. And months later ends with a whimper. You shut the thing down, your folks are terribly frustrated but you don’t really know what went wrong. From my experience, here’s probably what happened:

First, there’s the idea.

Then, there’s the productization of that idea.

Finally, there’s the business built around that product.

But you cannot make money off an idea. You can only make money from a business. And you cannot take an idea to market. You can only take a product to market.

Too often, Management doesn’t see the difference between the three and misses asking the right questions at the stage those questions need to be asked. The result is usually a shoddy product, reactive execution, management by crisis, a demoralized team and money down the drain.

Been there before?

If you rush to build a business around nothing more than an idea, you’ll probably find that

Your audience doesn’t understand your product because you don’t understand the audience. Or you spent so much time early on thinking about monetization you didn’t think enough about adoption.  Or by the time you launched, your product was a year behind its competition. Or you built your mobile app for a platform your early adopters don’t use. Or you launched without customer support or the ability to collect feedback.  Or you give up on the product too quickly because it didn’t really really excite you to begin with.

Seem familiar?

Here’s what I think might help avoid these holes:

When evaluating an idea you’d ask

  • Has this problem already been solved?
  • Does our organization – firm, company, startup – understand this space?
  • Is this way of doing business in our DNA?
  • Does it personally excite you, o ringmaster?
  • When the product will be ready, will it still be relevant?

And then, once the idea’s passed evaluation and you’ve begun to build,

  • Who are your early adopters?
  • How do we put together the talent needed to get this out the door?
  • What platform do we develop for? (mobile platform, web platform)
  • What features do we bake in/leave out?
  • What is our go-to-market plan?
  • What kind of customer support should we have (phone/email/in-app form)
  • How will we collect feedback?
  • What parameters will we monitor?

Once you’ve launched, gotten traction, feedback and momentum,

  • How do we make money?
  • What does our product roadmap look like? How often do we release?

You’re likely better off asking these questions when they really matter. Not too early, not too late. #Ilearntthehardway.

Among the most challenging advice I’ve received

… is this (at the very start of building a new product):

Assume your product’s already been built. Now think about how you’re going to get adoption and usage among your audience.

Too often you get so caught up in the excitement of building something cool, you don’t tackle the hard problem of seeding it and getting usage among early adopters until you’re very close to – or at – launch. Then you’ve got a product that’s ready and no one but yourselves using it. Your go-to-market guy’s under tremendous pressure and your developer’s twiddling his/her thumbs. Your team can run out of momentum and enthusiasm really quickly and it’s very hard to get your mojo back.

This has happened to us before. And I’m still working on that advice.

The MV Wisdom

While the monstrosity is gone, we had a chance to take a gander last week:

I wrote the following the next morning:

Well one had to see it. Because it’s there. And the reports of how it didn’t miss the Bandra Worli Sea Link by much, relatively speaking. From the spot on Juhu beach where the damn thing is, you can easily see the taller pair of towers of the Sea Link.

But it’s big. Driving down Juhu Tara from Santacruz, near the Ramada curve, I told myself to Keep a Watch out; you don’t want to Miss It. I thought it’d be a hundred feet off the beach or suchlike. Watch out my ass. It’s like the Worli TV tower while coming off the BWSL – in your damn face. It’s on the sand. For something this massive to come this close to the shore it’d have to be not just crazy, but Charlie-Sheen-stark-raving-nuts-berserk-crazy. This helicopter shot is straight out of a disaster movie – the damn vessel-from-hell is headed straight for the Juhu Centaur:

So I pay-and-parked in front of the Ramada and walked towards it. Few analogies, really. Dinosaur? Gulliver? Space ship? None come close. It’s ancient. Filthy. Tired. Rusting. The last vestiges of dignity seeping out of it. And yet disinterested in its fate, just as long as there’s one in store. So there’s a massive loneliness, sadness around it:

And yet it utterly dominates the horizon around it. Standing close to it gives you a sense of creeping agoraphobia, until you just have to look away. It’s arguably smaller than the Centaur and the Ramada in front of it but unmatched in sheer presence. No shacks, palm groves, seafront bungalows, miscellaneous other construction and crumbling walls around it. It stands alone. Off to its left there’s nothing until Madh, far into the distance. On its right, the Sea-link,the only comparable superstructure, is obscured by the hump of land at Juhu Koliwada.

So it stands, despicable, unwelcome, but unchallenged as emperor of its stretch of sea-land.

So there.

Doing life in software is hard

Google+ is like a VCR. I know exactly what I can do with it. But I cannot figure out how. Maybe I’m slower in the head now, but I remember within minutes I was using Orkut in the same way that I would always use it. Ditto Facebook. Then again, it was probably because they’re such simple, single-textured attempts at replicating real connections. + is more ambitious.

+ is supposed to be the notFacebook network. The gentleman hero that gives back to the meanings of ‘social’ and ‘share’ the nuance they had lost for the last five years. To create social circles of people that really matter to you. To share with them pictures, plans, numbers, confessions that couldn’t make it to Facebook. To boldly go…, so to speak.

But now I find myself being ‘added’ by the same people I’d spent time weeding out of my Facebook friends in an attempt to create those private spaces that + was supposed to let me create in the first place. I herded the party out the back only to have them stagger in the front door.

And what does ‘added’ by someone mean? Would I begin seeing things they shared? Would they see what I shared? Was I part of circles I didn’t know about? Frustratingly, for a network that was supposed to let you create social connections on your terms, I couldn’t even refuse to be ‘added’. Logging in to +, for now at least, seems like walking into a party blindfolded.

But you can retreat into your own circles, can’t you? Yes and No. Maybe I’m the social weirdo here, but I can’t tell just what my today-in-real-life-circles are. I mean I can group/circle the guys from school, the folks from IBM, my first roommates, my then-close friends at IIMK. Each group corresponds to people in distinct phases of my life, people that have remained prominent as the others have faded.

The group reveals itself only after the phase has passed.

And then it also strikes me. That I can only recollect a single group for each phase should tell me something – I really _belonged_ to only one group at a time. It tells me that groups like ‘work’ and ‘family’ and ‘cousins’ and daily commute gang’ and such are really just only contexts for interactions. You can force-create + circles for them, but they’re really freeform amoeba-like shapes, and will change. Not even snap, just thin out at points and separate into other blobs without much emotional ado. Attempts to share ‘stuff’ with them on services like + will peter out in weeks. Or days. I mean what would you share with your ‘work’ circle that you wouldn’t share publicly on Facekut? And how long would you keep sharing with ‘cousins’? Google weakly suggesting ‘Acquaintances’ as a possible option demonstrates just how hard it is to find more than one meaningful, binding circle in your life.

Maybe I don’t get it. It meaning having real-life connections. Maybe + is really a move-to-the-next-curve improvement in social networks, and I’m a bottom-of-the-curve hermit.

Or maybe doing life in software really is hard.

The unbearable burden of Facebook

From TIME magazine’s Person of the Year profile of Mark Zuckerberg:

“We’re trying to map out what exists in the world,” he says. “In the world, there’s trust. I think as humans we fundamentally parse the world through the people and relationships we have around us.

And you begin to understand why Facebook remains controversial in spite of its everywhereness. Mark Zuckerberg views Facebook as a digital analogue of our real-world relationships, and a way to make the Internet a better place because of those relationships.

But that is a huge responsibility to place on people. Your friend list on Facebook is likely nothing like ‘what exists in the world’ for you. Very few among you have enough self-awareness to know who you really have a relationship with. Fewer still have the strength of character to decline friend requests from your extended family, current and former colleagues, former batchmates, acquaintances from the city you used to live in, your old boyfriend or girlfriend – all people who you had some relationship with, perhaps a very close one, but no longer. And even fewer will un-friend people in your list who no longer matter (with equanimity, I mean. youdumpedmeyoupigunfriendthere doesn’t count).

Hence the different ways people use Facebook: a professional marketing tool for yourself or your company, or a way to peek into the life of your former crush, or while away boredom at work through gameaftergameaftergame, or to share random blurry photos from your phone camera, or channel every semi-conscious thought into a status update directed to no one in particular but one you always expect comments on. Ways of using Facebook which betray everything about you – desires, insecurities, biases, sparks of geniuses, likes – but rarely reflect your your real-world relationships.

It emerges in the article that Zuckerberg does possess such confidence, such self-awareness, such integrity. This is rare, and it is probably only such who can use Facebook as Zuckerberg intended it, with no conflicts – of privacy, time, expectation or obligation.

As the writer of the TIME profile points out, “Facebook is still a painfully blunt instrument for doing the delicate work of transmitting human relationships”. Indeed, we inhabit so many imperfectly formed, constantly changing personas (some of them semi-conscious) that any such Facebook alternative would have to be so complex as to be completely unusable. So like any sufficiently complex issue, we make Facebook a binary decision – log in or not.

Oh, how much is that second-hand app on the home screen?

Frédéric Filloux in his Monday Note column describes a rights-based (as opposed to files-based) future for managing digital content (whether magazines or books):

A first phase is likely to consist of an extension of what we have today, i.e. a transaction system based of book files: text-based books or richer media products. The main players will remain Amazon, or the Apple iBooks store. But, in five to ten years, this way of dealing with intellectual content  will be seen as primitive.

The true revolution will be a shift from a files transaction system to a rights transaction system. This transformation involves radical changes in the way we think of digital content, books, videos or even games.

Today, Joe can’t share a book that he bought (rented?) from an e-book-store, can’t give it back, can’t pass it on, can’t re-sell it – nothing. He can either keep it or delete it. – what a waste! The publisher and technology industries, for all their talent, have created a form that, in important ways, is less convenient than even the original physical book form that it is based on .[1]

They will be forced to fix this state of affairs as more people read their books, magazines and more online, and competitors with saner policies enter the market.

But even in a digital rights-based world, what about a second-hand market for digital books – and apps? If Joe purchased an email program for his Nokia smartphone, and a year later bought an iPhone, he could

1. return his app (the rights to the app) to the store he bought it from. In this case, does Joe get a full or partial refund? Unlike a physical good, there has been no wear. And it’s fair to say he’d be refunded whatever the current price is (or maybe the price he bought it for, whichever is less). But this is flawed – since the number of rights are infinite, they are worth nothing themselves. The store gains nothing by refunding Joe his money, so there’s no incentive in a return-refund.

2. transfer his app (the rights) to Jane’s Nokia. Unless Joe’s gifting the app away, a transfer means Jane will need to pay Joe for those rights. How much are those rights worth to Joe?

This is the second-hand market for digital goods.

An eBay for digital goods sounds about right, and about time [2].

[1] And when we attempt to set the digital book/magazine free, the limited corral of policies we build around it is maddening in its clumsiness: you-can-only-share-with-so-many-people, you-can-only-share-so-many-times, you-can-only-share-with-an-identical-device, you-have-to-pay-extra-to-share. This is when you know that from among the inventors, engineers, marketers, lawyers and accountants, the first two have left the room.

[2] This market will need support from app stores and developers, of course. There’s no way – over-the-counter or otherwise – for Joe to transfer his app to Jane (or any other bidder). This is regardless of whether it’s bought from an app store (Apple/Android/RIM/(ugh)Nokia) or from the app developer itself.

Imagining the Google Lifestyle

We already live in a world where, thanks to Google, all the information we’ll ever need is available in seconds. The next stage is going to be about answering this question: Now that we have all this information, how do we best leverage it to make a difference to our daily lives? You see, today, all of Google’s magic has been confined to the web browser, to static Web pages. Google’s now trying to drive its expertise to revolutionize every aspect of our communication. The building blocks are already in place, and Google’s already begun the effort of trying to put these together, with potentially astounding results. This essay is a hypothesis of how Google, in the next three to five years, could leverage all the applications and services it offers today, and offer unprecedented integration to get users to live “The Google Lifestyle”: where Google is an omnipresent tool that we will all use.

Why is it Google’s lifestyle that we’ll be leading?
Right. So what makes this company so hard to beat? First, like all great companies, Google happens to be the right idea in the right place at the right time. Today, as it expands beyond its bastion of web search, it’s more likely to succeed than the also-rans, most significantly Netscape. The technology that Google needs to implement all its futuristic ideas, is already there, or will be ready in the very near future. Second, just as Microsoft’s broad strategy is all based upon the personal desktop – which is yesterday’s platform – and all that connects to it, Google, a generation later than Microsoft, is all about the Internet – tomorrow’s platform – and anything that connects to it. And the Internet, based on open standards since its inception, does not care about the platform that a user is running. That is what spells doom for Third-Generation companies, which attempted to tie users down to their own respective platforms. We live in a world of unprecedented advances in communications technology, and the Internet has been the driving force behind this. A company, whose strategy is based solely upon gaining control of this medium, has a pretty serious shot at being able to dictate the future lifestyle.

Google is also using “free” as its mantra for beating the competition, to “devalue Microsoft’s assets”, according to Robert Young. Since Google’s revenue stream is targeted advertising, which seems to be bringing them ample revenue, all of its services will be free offerings. Given the plummeting price and staggering performance increases in compute power, it costs Google a very little to provide the massive amounts of storage and processing power that these services need. The computer, then, becomes just a terminal for viewing and manipulating data. All your data resides away from your computer, on Google’s servers. Already, your email, your buddy list, your pictures, and increasingly your movies, and finally, your documents, will reside on Google’s servers.

Personal communication:
How will Google enhance our communication on the web? Well, Google’s already made forays into the email, messaging, VOIP, blogging and social networking markets. Its personal communications strategy is based on the assumption that if a whole lot of people begin using its products, a bunch of very interesting things are possible:

Email is the centerpiece of our online communication. (For all of those who doubt that, what’s the first piece of e-information that you give to anyone you interact with? Your website/blog address? Your instant messaging ID? Nope, it’s your email address!) So to begin with, Google wants your Gmail address to become your online identity. In fact, Google’s even begun calling your Gmail address as your “Google account”. And you need this account to use a lot of Google’s services. Anyone with a Google account can now use Google’s instant messaging service – bare-bones, no-nonsense service named Google Talk. Also, an account holder can put up a profile on Google’s excellent social networking service, named Orkut. There are other similar social networking services too, but Google’s got this one sewn up – the interface and feature list are just great! Finally, you can start your own blog with Blogger. Blogs are now universally acknowledged as an important factor in shaping the future of journalism.

Now put all of this together. Imagine you receive an email from your friend, notifying you about the date for your high school reunion. You think – well, that’s a very good opportunity for me to hook up with my buddies, and a bit of business networking too. So you’d like to be well prepared for this event. Since everyone who’s invited is on the cc: list in the email, you use Gmail’s integration with Google Talk to see if the sender of the email (who is presumably the organizer) is online. If he/she is, simply call him/her up, (Henceforth, for sake of convenience, “he” is to be read as “he or she”) via Google Talk. Use Gmail’s integration with Orkut to check out the profiles of each of your former schoolmates. Use Google’s advanced search capabilities to search for the kind of people you want to hook up with – for purely personal or business reasons. Catch up with them, using Google Talk. When you meet, you don’t have to spend a lot of awkward moments breaking the ice – you’ve already been in touch! And right from your desk – and all instantaneously – and all for free! That’s the kind of integration we’re talking about! And recall Google Desktop (currently Version 2)? That will be your receptacle to access all of Google’s services – the one-stop Google stop – on your desktop!

In the entertainment industry, Google could start up a service akin to iTunes, perhaps by hooking up with Nokia (or another smartphone provider), and record companies. I expect that single-functionality devices such as the iPod and other MP3 players will eventually die out, to be replaced by mobile phones which have the same kind of audio and storage capability (for instance, the Nokia N91). There would be no need to download music, as it’s done today. You ‘buy’ unlimited rights to listen to a song, but the song itself resides on Google’s servers. You could use Google’s advanced search functionality to quickly find the song you want.

I predict a similar phenomenon with TV. Google could push for a standard that involves plugging “Television” into the internet – via TCP/IP, instead of via the current bunch of satellites, which would enable the company to provide never-before features like customizable program/channel listings, pause/fast forward/rewind for scheduled movies (TiVo, only far better). Video will no longer be simply a one-way streaming medium, but an amazingly creative and vibrant publishing platform. Again, none of this requires data to be stored on your devices – only the applications to use Google’s services.

The Mobile space:
It is now inevitable that the mobile phone will be the computing platform of the future. According to Rajesh Jain, one of India’s most famous technology entrepreneurs, we are now at the threshold of convergence of the “three screens” of our lives – the Television, the computer monitor, and the mobile phone. Nokia’s director of strategic marketing, Olli-Pekka Lintula, recently stated to the Wall Street Journal that “All future phones for enterprises from Nokia will also be Wi-Fi equipped “. Once that happens, mobile phones will truly become part of the Internet – and that could present Google with the opportunity for becoming the world’s largest mobile service provider!

It’d be straightforward to have a small version of Google Desktop’s sidebar for mobile phones. That would be the mobile user’s starting point for all his interactions with the online world. He wouldn’t need to maintain a local “Contacts” list, because his Gmail address book already provides him with that. There’s no need to send an SMS. Since Google Talk is integrated into your phone, you can carry your online “presence” or “status” out into the real world. You can simply verify that the recipie
is not busy currently, and either call him straightaway using Google Talk for mobile, or the offline messaging feature of Google Talk.

Google in May this year bought a company named Dodgeball. Dodgeball is a mix of social networking tools (very similar to Orkut, but much simpler), that use mobile messaging and location awareness to “hook” people physically near each other. Elegant, but tremendously useful. Now, there are two observations here: 1.) the mobile phone actually is the link between the online world and the real world. Carrying all of our online communications paradigms into the real world opens up so many possibilities! 2.) Google could link Dodgeball’s tools, Orkut profiles and its own search capabilities, so that a user could now actually type in a query like – “list all those people in a radius of three blocks, who have an interest in philately”! That is SO neat! Or you could hook it up to your Gmail address book and Google Talk’s presence feature for queries like “list all of my friends who’re no more than a kilometre away, and have nothing to do all evening!”

Imagine – this is possible, and with tools and services that are available today! We live in exciting times!

I end with a quote from a recent article in Time Magazine. If the prospect of such a day – where Search meets the Internet meets the Mobile space – does not thrill you, nothing will!

“You land late in the evening in a city where you know nobody. You did not have time to book a hotel, your luggage has not turned up on the carousel–and the plane’s air conditioning gave you a sore throat. What to do?

With your cell phone, you first Google your suitcase–it has a small implanted chip that responds to radio waves with a GPS locator–and it turns out that your luggage has been deposited 200 yards away in the next terminal. As you walk over, you search for a hotel room; the screen of your cell shows you pictures of several hotels in your price bracket, with views from individual room windows. Your search engine gives you a list of pharmacies that are still open at this hour, and tells you that your favorite blues band will be playing at a festival in the city’s park over the weekend. The engine can search your desktop back home, and it reminds you that a college friend e-mailed you a year ago to say he and his wife were moving to this city (you had forgotten). You decide to invite them to the festival.

What you have just tasted is the future of search. It will change the way humans interface with computers and make today’s methods seem as outmoded as telex machines and brick-size mobile phones.”

Onwards, to the Google Lifestyle!