Google is winning the battle, but will Apple win the war?

A few nights ago the internet was on fire with the release of Google Maps on iOS. When iOS 6 was released, Apple shed its once close relationship with Google and removed Google Maps and YouTube as pre-installed apps on its operating system. This instantly removed tens of millions of iOS users from Google’s data mine and it turn made it more difficult for them to use Google’s services. A lot of people questioned the move as both apps have become staples for even the most casual iOS user. Apple Maps didn’t have the warmest reception, to put it lightly and using YouTube or Google Maps via the web hasn’t been ideal. But mere months after the release of iOS 6, Google has since released updates to nearly all of their most used apps. Google’s design prowess has increased exponentially in the past couple of years. It has shown in their last releases of Android and its starting to show up in their iOS apps as well. Google+ was the first app to show just how good a Google app could be on iOS. Google Search and Youtube came shortly after followed by Gmail and Google Maps. What does this mean for Apple as many of their core experiences are being supplanted by some users with Google products?

Everybody wins

Google makes their money from advertising. The more people using their products, the more money they make advertising. More users also means more data, which allows them to better serve those ads as well as create better products. Creating great services to attract users overrides any “feud” they may have with Apple. They’ve done this with all of their new iOS apps and should get a lot of the users back that they’ve lost due to iOS 6.

Apple has shed the proverbial monkey off its back and has uprooted Google from its stock experience. They’ve also created their own Maps app, while not perfect, has lots of potential and allows them to collect valuable data that could be used in future products. Google creating great iOS apps does two positive things for Apple. It satiates the millions of Apple customers that use Google products and eliminates some of the curiosity of those users that may have been thinking of switching to Android. Apple prides itself on the experiences they create for their users so I don’t believe they’re going to take this lying down. I’d expect some software improvements across the board in the next 12 months.


The biggest winners of this whole kerfuffle are the end users. No matter which of the two leading platforms you choose, you’re going to get a good Google experience on either.


The biggest winners of this whole kerfuffle are the end users. No matter which of the two leading platforms you choose, you’re going to get a good Google experience on either. On Android you may get a better experience in some cases due to integration with the OS; the Google experiences on Apple products are as good as any 3rd party developers software and in some cases (maps) slightly better than 1st party apps. The bright side if you’re an Apple user is that you have options. Its never a bad thing to have multiple high quality software options to choose from.

Does there have to be a loser?

google maps ios iphone Google is winning the battle, but will Apple win the war? This is the probably the best possible outcome Apple could hope for and I’m sure they know it. Anyone expecting Apple Maps to have parity with Google Maps in only a couple of years isn’t being realistic. Google has poured billions of dollars and countless man-hours into getting their maps to the usability level it is today. Sure they may have been caught off guard by the slightly overblown outcry from “map-gate”. I’m sure they’re at least somewhat embarrassed as everyone praises the new Google Maps app, but that’s a short-term injury that will be largely forgotten by most in the next year.

After considering all of that, who would’ve guessed 6 months ago that Apple getting rid of Google’s apps would resort in better designed/functioning apps replacing them by the end of the year? Of course Google is doing what is has to do. It doesn’t benefit Google to keep an insular ecosystem like Apple does. Apple makes money from people buying their hardware, thus providing exclusive features and services entices users to come and stay in Apple’s ecosystem. Google on the other hand makes little to no money on Android as a platform, but from users of their services via ads. That allows them to be platform agnostic and go wherever the eyeballs are. There has even been talks recently of Android’s latest exclusive product, Google Now, coming to desktops soon. Why would Google make one of the most unique features of Android available to anyone with a browser? Data.

In a way, Google the company benefiting from its services being on as many mobile devices as possible undermines Android as a platform. The most lauded features that differentiate Android from Apple (customization, widgets, open app store, etc.) are aimed mainly at core Android users, not your everyday smartphone user. In fact, the somewhat busy home screen, wild west app ecosystem and lack of consistent update schedule is what keeps some people away from Android. Apple’s predictability and ease of use is why your mom, grandma and technology-challenged brother own iPhones and iPads. In fairness, so far this strategy hasn’t stopped Android from capturing 75% of the worldwide smartphone market share in Q3. The problem for Google is most of those users are using older, low-end Android phones with out of date software. They also tend to not use those phone for much more than well….phones. Google wants engaged customers that use the internet, apps and services and so far most of those are on iOS. Both companies can get their desired results, (money) while giving customers the option of two different experiences. This battle is far from over and the competition will only make both sides better.

How I Instagram

I remain steadfast in my belief that one of the best examples of the disproportionate value of the iPhone is the fact that we are able to completely ignore the fact that its form factor is horrible to use as a camera. Yes, the internals are amazing, the guts of the camera are terrific, but when you’re awkwardly holding it out, taking pictures with this device, admit it, you’re always 22% certain the thing is going to pop out of the delicate cradle of fingers that you’ve constructed to hold it.

And I eagerly take photos with my iPhone every single day.

It is with equal irony that the app I need the most to post my photos is the one I use the least – Instagram. Now, I love Instagram and there is no denying that the team hit on a pitch perfect combination of the right, minimal feature set during a critical rise of mobile phone operating systems. But the majority of my learning about how to take and edit photographs with my iPhone has occurred outside of Instagram where I figured out how to be a better storyteller.

Here’s what I’ve learned and how I’ve learned it:

Find your edit. The initial attraction of Instagram is one-stop shopping. The application does represent a complete solution for capturing, editing, and posting a photo. Instagram found a sweet spot for the core set of essential tools, and much of my early photography with it was spent exploring what I could capture in a square photograph and how that capture might interact with Instagram’s clever spectrum of filters.

There is a special pride that comes from taking and posting a photograph that you feel needs no editing – when you’ve found that perfect combination of composition and color. But in my experience, the majority of photographs will benefit from some type of editing. I came to this realization with my beloved Gotham filter in Instagram, which did something absolutely magical with blue skies and clouds. Gotham instantly transformed a bland horizon shot into something that appeared to be from another planet.

 How I Instagram

For reasons I still don’t understand, Instagram removed Gotham from the 2.0 release. Infuriated, I took to the Internet to understand how this filter I loved was constructed. Turns out, it’s a non-trivial process outside of Instagram, which originally involved three different applications. The Gotham reconstruction process not only returned an approximation of my favorite filter, it showed me what decent amount of work Instagram did in order to find a set of compelling filters. More importantly, though, I learned that with equal work, I could build any filter I wanted.

You can hang out exclusively in Instagram, but my advice is to figure out how to recreate your favorite filter in other applications, such as Camera+ or Snapseed, because in doing so, you’ll discover there are infinite filters at your disposal.

Light is only useful if you can see it. Or its absence. My next discovery has to do with lighting. In flying back and forth between the west and east I discovered I had a cloud problem. I couldn’t stop taking pictures of clouds, but I also discovered there were optimal times to capture their shape and texture: sunrise and sunset.

What’s going on the during these two distinct times of day? First, there are more yellows, oranges, and reds in the sky as the sun refracts out more of the light spectrum, but more importantly, there are shadows. You’re going to read more about my fascination with contrast in a bit, but what is magical about sunrise and sunset is the strange black shapes that slowly stretch across the landscape. Objects you stare at every day are framed by oddly twisted and stretched shadows of themselves and it’s these mutated mirror images that capture my eye.

 How I Instagram

It’s instinct for me now. When the sun is either rising or setting, I look where it is in the sky and and I look in two directions: directly at the sun to see what it’s playing with:

 How I Instagram

And then I look around to see what other shadows it’s created:

 How I Instagram

I prefer contrast and drama. My standard editing process starts in Snapseed. I use “Tune Image” to adjust brightness, ambiance, contrast, and saturation. I rarely touch white balance. As you can see, I have a fascination with high contrast and deeply saturated photos. My wife does not and I wonder if that makes her a better casual photographer than I, but then I stop wondering because such mental excursions are a waste of energy.

While feedback from likes or comments are one of my favorite ways to get a sense of how folks feel about a photo, and while I love to see what other folks are building on Instagram, the joy of a great photograph is that it speaks to you. I love finding circles, deep perspective, vibrant colors, and contrast everywhere. This is why my last move in Snapseed is to try the Drama filter. This unique filter performs some crazy HDR transformation that finds unexpected depth in clouds, carves out deep shadows, and adds texture everywhere. Drama often takes my breath away.

Black and white strips away color and reveals unexpected stories. I’m just back from a family vacation in Costa Rica and if Costa Rica were to nominate a national color that color would be green. In the areas we traveled, the average rainfall ranged from 80 to 200 inches a year and that means green everywhere. Given my preference for deeply saturated colors, you’d expect lots of jungle, and Costa Rica didn’t disappoint, but my favorite jungle shot didn’t have a smidge of green.

 How I Instagram

A lesson I learned in my reverse engineering of the Gotham filter was the strange power of black and white filters. The removal of color allows other elements of the photo to emerge. The haziness of the rainy sky. The pleasing geometry of buildings. The perspective afforded by fog. The original image is a blast of greens and reds and would’ve shown little of what I just described. The lesson of black and white photos is similar to the lesson of Instagram: what you remove, how you reduce, may allow previously hidden simplicity to appear.

My process for black and white varies, but the approximation of Gotham starts in Snapseed, where I perform the same image tuning as I described above. I follow that up with applying the red, black and white filter before I jump over to Camera+. In this app, I do the following:

  • Select the Darken filter.
  • Apply the Silver Gelatin filter at 50%. Apply changes.
  • Apply the Vibrant filter at 25%. Apply changes.
  • Lastly, apply the Cyanotype filter at ~10%. Apply changes.

Instant gorgeous Gotham. R.I.P.

People lose their shit for fog. Or, maybe, there is nothing negative about negative space. My last learning has to do with disproportionate value. There are a couple of semi-guaranteed moves that generate good photos and I think they relate to this article’s theme.

First, if you want a reaction from your audience, I recommend fog. Like… any fog. I can rarely predict the audience reaction to my photos, but I know that fog is a crowd pleaser. I know this because one of my first well-received photographs, I believe, is only magical because of the fog that provided an otherwise unattainable Middle Earth quality.

 How I Instagram

Second, and similarly, I want to note the power of negative space. My gut instinct is to fill the photographic frame up with stuff, and that’s precisely the opposite of what your eye wants to see. If you go back and look at my photo history, you’ll notice I have a real problem with horizons and clouds – I can’t stop taking pictures of them. However, you might also notice that the amount of horizon I capture is slowly decreasing. Negative space is the space around and between the subject(s) of an image, and what I’ve discovered after several thousand Instagrams is that the more negative space I place in a photo, the more story it tells.

Find a Story

A good picture tells a complete story. There is a beginning, a middle and an end. Unlike an actual written story, the words are captured in objects, color, light and arrangement. But the combination of each of these aspects is only half the story. The other half is provided by the viewer. It’s the story they tell themselves as they process the image in a way that is entirely unique to them.

 How I Instagram

My belief is that good photography involves the same process as good application and hardware design. You find the essence of what you are photographing, writing, or building and that means you need to be willing to strip away the unnecessary over and over again. In a world where we love to preserve our options, reduction feels limiting, but sensible reduction allows the consumers of the work to better tell their own story.

How the Apple TV will work

There has been lots of talk in the past year about Apple possibly releasing an actual Apple Television or an updated Apple TV set-top box that will revolutionize television as we know it. It’ll bypass the cable and satellite companies and make direct deals with the networks that will allow customers to choose exactly what channels or shows they want to watch all wrapped in a pretty interface. Well, this isn’t going to happen, at least not anytime soon. Don’t fret, an Apple TV is still coming and using what we know about the television industry and Apple I don’t think it’s hard to determine how it might function.

Why can’t I buy only the channels I want?

Apple simply isn’t in the position to break the strangle hold cable companies currently have on the networks content. Most of the networks are in long-term existing contracts with cable/sat that won’t allow them to jump ship anytime soon, even if they wanted to. There is also the fear on the networks part to not kill the goose that’s laying the golden eggs. A lot of channels are simply making so much money from the current system in place, that risking it just to jump to some unproven deal with Apple would simply be foolish at this point. For example, ESPN is earning around $6 per subscriber (roughly 100 million people) from the cable/sat companies. If Apple sold channels a la carte, even at a $10/mo subscription, ESPN (Disney) would lose tens of millions of dollars per month and they definitely couldn’t demand the same premium they’re currently getting from traditional TV services. Other channels like HBO and Showtime, which are already payed by the user on top of their cable bill, gets millions of dollars worth of free advertising and promotion from the cable and satellite companies. If HBO allowed users to sign up for HBOGO without a cable/sat subscription you can bet all of those advertising dollars would dry up pretty quickly.

watch espn How the Apple TV will work hbo go How the Apple TV will work

The Compromise

So what does Apple do to get a greater foothold in the living room and turn the little black box, what Steve Jobs famously called “a hobby” into a real revenue generator or at least another magnet that spurs idevice sales? Compromise. Just as Apple did with the iPhone and AT&T, they will have to make a deal with the devil. The cable industry. This time the negotiations will have to occur with possibly four companies instead of just one. Time Warner, Comcast, AT&T, and Verizon Fios. (Satellite could be left out of this because of the logistical problems of needing a receiver)

Apple famously went back and forth with AT&T to hammer out the stipulations of what they wanted in order to bring the iPhone to AT&T. (Visual voicemail is a great example). You can imagine how intense these negotiations have/are getting trying to get the cable companies to give up control of their cable boxes. Especially if Apple went to the networks first to poach content from them. Apple has to show how getting in bed with them will be good for business in the short and long-term. Time Warner’s CEO seems to be open to it, which is a good sign.

 How the Apple TV will work
Photo by Knowledge (Check out what his perfect Apple TV would look like)

How would it work?

Imagine your Apple TV as an iPhone and the cable companies are the cellular carriers (some of them actually are). You buy your TV or set-top box from Apple and call your local cable provider to setup your service. (The cable companies want to keep their relationship with customers). I’m assuming, similar to the iPhone, you’ll have to have a broadband connection along with your cable plan. Forcing a broadband connection actually does two things: 1. Allows the user to get full access to all of the features of the Apple TV (App Store access, messaging/FaceTime, Siri, etc), and guarantees the cable companies a higher revenue stream, a move in which Apple may have to use as an incentive for the executives at cable to play along as they did with the phone companies. This could either raise rates if they position this as a premium service or lower package rates, especially in cities with multiple providers do to competition. This part is definitely up for debate.

“The down side is bandwidth”

Assuming it is a set-top box and not a full-fledged TV, it would probably have to be a slightly modified if not a totally redesigned “AppleTV” than currently offered. Maybe existing AppleTV’s could be used as some sort of extenders for other TVs, but that’s just a total guess/hope. It would depend if they deliver true IPTV (TV over the internet) or if they would still use coaxial cable to deliver the signal. IPTV would offer a lot of benefits like not requiring an analog to digital conversion from the box, interactivity, custom advertising, easier app integration and possibly a higher quality picture. The down side is bandwidth. The cable companies will have to raise their bandwidth speeds, but what they’ll probably do is force you to have a minimum connection speed, therefore raising the price of admission. Bastards.

What would be the benefits?

The major benefit of owning an Apple TV would be to ditch the cable providers horribly slow, clunky and ugly boxes and give total user interface control to Apple. The entire experience from the time you turn on your TV will be controlled by Apple, which is a good thing when compared to any of the cable box interfaces being used currently. You can bet you will also get OS updates, which would probably be some form of iOS like the current Apple TVs. Speaking of iOS, all of your iOS devices will obviously be able to be used as remotes and smart second screen devices, à la Microsoft’s Smart Glass via 1st and 3rd party apps. I’d assume you’ll also be able to set recordings via an Apple TV app from your iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad as well as use Siri from the device to change channels, search, record etc.

 How the Apple TV will work

Recording? Apple could either negotiate (or charge a premium) for an integrated On-Demand service, similar to HULU that gives access to tons of catalog content from each network. Or they could provide an iCloud/DVR type solution. Giving you a limited amount of cloud storage to store aired shows (100GB?) and possibly sale you more if needed similar to how the current iCloud storage upgrades work, only larger amounts. They would of course finally open up the TV App Store which would allow for all types of TV/Video based apps that could integrate with all available content depending on the apps function. A new Apple TV could be a huge opportunity for Apple to get serious about gaming on the biggest screen in peoples homes. Using your iOS devices or maybe even an Apple made controller, Apple could really shake things up in the gaming world by providing a platform that while not as powerful as the next Playstation or Xbox due next fall but good enough for casual gamers to have some great HD gaming experiences (hello Wii U). I believe positioning the Apple TV as a full entertainment device, including gaming, benefits Apple in two ways. It not only puts them in a better position than the upcoming generation of game consoles, that will clearly aim to be total entertainment hubs, but it gives certain customers a reason to update their Apple TV boxes annually or semi-annually for better performance and better looking games.

Conclusion

My best guess is that Apple will release an Apple TV, more than likely a set-top box, at least initially. Selling televisions isn’t a very high margin business, not to mention they’re expensive and I’d bet Apple wants this device in every home that has an iPhone or iPad. In the past 5 years Apple has made it their business model to entice their users to want to upgrade their Apple products every couple of years and that will only happen with the Apple TV if the product is $299 or lower. Newer, faster Ax chips with better graphical performance that are used in their mobile products will in turn be used in newer Apple TV’s providing more and more power every year while maximizing their chip production and lowering cost as Apple is so good at doing. There has definitely been a lot of chatter coming from China about Apple producing actual TV sets, so maybe they could release one simultaneously or shortly after as an alternative to the set-top boxes. The biggest question is logistically how would they sale 42-55 inch TVs in Apple retail stores? Do they have the capacity to do this and provide the same retail experience Apple is known for? What about installation?

Is this the dream Apple TV we all hoped for? To be blunt, no. There are lots of compromises being made, mainly the option to actually choose which channels you want to pay for. As much as most customers want it, it’s going to take a lot more than Apple to move that mountain, unfortunately at this point. Apple was able to change how music was sold because the record industry was desperate and losing hundreds of millions of dollars. This not the case for TV, in fact business is great, considering the economic conditions. The only serious threat to the TV establishment is the growing prevalence of quality internet video and a generation becoming comfortable with pirating TV. Nevertheless, an elegant, integrated OS that gives you access to all of your content, anytime, damn sure would be a step in the right direction and possibly get a cord cutter like myself back on the cable train.

What makes mobile retention so difficult

In my last post, I aimed to draw attention to the fact that while consumers and the press like having a simple number they can understand, mobile metrics are not one size fits all. For some mobile companies, the internal focus may be on daily or even hourly active users. For others, monthly active users may make the most sense.

There are numerous tools available that help developers understand mobile retention and analytics, such as FlurryMixPanel or Apsalar. Yet, understanding mobile retention is still difficult because of reasons far out of any developer’s control:

1. Mobile developers don’t know where their downloads come from

 What makes mobile retention so difficult

Web developers have the luxury of being able to easily view traffic sources and understand how users get to their sites (search keywords, queries, direct, referrals etc.). With mobile, you’re flying blind, as the App Store and Google Play give you almost no information about how users learned of your product. If you’re not sure how you acquired that user, you certainly can’t optimize that acquisition process.

2. Mobile developers don’t know when their apps are deleted

One data point I’ve longed for on mobile is knowing which users delete your application. There are several mobile apps that still send me email notifications or product updates, not knowing that I’ve already deleted their apps from my device. While I can imagine this metric isn’t given out because it may upset some developers (similar to getting an email every time a person removes you as a friend on Facebook, perhaps), I think it’s important to understand if you plan on building a sustainable app on another platform.

3. Mobile developers don’t know why users drop off 

unsubscribe1 What makes mobile retention so difficult

When I unsubscribe from an email newsletter, downgrade a subscription service or delete an account on the web, I often get an email asking why I’m leaving. Because most users on mobile seem to just fade away (put an app on their 6th page or delete it without notification), the developer doesn’t know if or why their users drop off.

These are issues the average mobile developer faces when attempting to combat mobile retention problems. Unfortunately, much of the data that would allow developers to make more informed decisions to improve retention is locked up by the mobile platforms. It’s not that running a sustainable audience or business on mobile is impossible, you’re just starting a few steps behind.