tl;dr Context for WWDC - the big tech players want to own your user experience and the evolution of the browser.
Heading into WWDC this week I’m eager to hear Apple’s vision for the future of mobile. We’ve come a long way since the advent of the smartphone which moved us beyond the web page, browser, mouse and keyboard. The iPhone opened up an entirely new technology and business model but it has reached a saturation point. Benedict Evans and Mary Meeker highlight this slowing growth. The industry needs to evolve. Smartphones are on a replacement curve, not an adoption curve.
This has enormous implications for the big tech players and the startups we invest in. Discovery and engagement on mobile is harder than ever. Distribution and retention is tough. People don’t engage with new apps. The average user downloads zero apps per month. SurveyMonkey uses their panel data to demonstrate the difficulties of building a business on mobile.
To solve this broken model, Apple and Google are both moving interaction and context technologies down the stack into the operating system itself. This allows the platforms to hold on to the value of mobile innovation, having learned hard lessons from desktop web mistakes of the past where Netscape and Internet Explorer couldn’t keep their users. Simultaneously, Google and Facebook are moving interaction into messengers — in essence behaving as Google did when it captured much of the value in the desktop web. Apple has made initial steps into third-party services within an app interface with updates to Messages, Maps and more.
OS Evolution: What’s next
Outside of the App Store, the major platforms (iOS and Android) haven’t innovated on the engagement and distribution model so we’re seeing services come up with alternatives. Ahead of WWDC, Apple pre-announced app store ads which felt inevitable, as Google rolled this functionality out last year. It remains to be seen how viable the paid channel will perform for broader app distribution. Will this eat into Facebook’s mobile app install revenue, which continues to gain share from Google?
Apple has opened Siri to third-parties. This will be a new channel where apps can be invisible. The OS can broker information to a internet service that can then act on a user’s behalf. Services like Viv and Vurb1, aspire to be an independent discovery solution.
Both the Apple and Google platforms have a framework for deep linking into apps. This enables interactions that more closely resemble the desktop browser, but we’re only at the early stages of exploring what deep linking technology can really do. There is still a massive opportunity in bringing context and information from the smartphone into the consumer services realm (see Button1).
Rich notifications and 3D Touch widget for apps allow users to interact with services without opening an app at all. Two years ago, we saw Apple open up to third-party keyboards to interact with services within other apps. These keyboards, like Android launchers and the notification screen, represent a valuable strategic position that lets developers have a relationship with a user effectively at the OS level, across other apps.
Apps themselves are fundamentally changing. At Google IO, streaming apps were announced bringing us a step closer to a web of apps that lets us search and move between apps as easily as on the web. This could lower barriers to adoption and be good news for app developers.
The modern browser will actually be within the killer application for the smartphone, messaging. While WeChat demonstrates one way this might unfold (Connie Chan has a great writeup), we are beginning to see messengers in the west move beyond just lightweight text communication. Facebook’s Messenger platform opened up for agents / chatbots and will continue to develop toward more generic UIs (think of it like a browser). Core Facebook is embracing media distribution and building an incredible video product attempting to capture distribution and consumption of all media.
In a page from Facebook, Apple is allowing third-party developers to have direct interaction with users in Messages. This will be a strong platform and might allow for direct service discovery and interaction in a native and frictionless way.
Snapchat’s path is one of the most interesting. From minimizing communication friction with disappearing photos, Snapchat has evolved into content distribution and consumption platform. From Stories to Discover, Snapchat went from personal media communication to mass media consumption and discovery. With the most recent app update, Discover, Snapchat is poised to become the hub for content and communication.
Further fanning the growth of mobile, hardware components are dramatically cheaper due to economies of scale in the smartphone supply chain. Amazon’s Echo success is in part driven by these cost curves. Connected hardware represents a novel platform for internet services. Whether it be Echo, Google Home or others, service discovery and engagement is taking new form with voice interface in broader context.
If I was back to my days developing and distributing mobile apps while reading these tea leaves, I’d be focused on creating the best possible service irrespective of context. An app is just one distribution channel, as is the mobile web. Novel channels are being developed and could be key for fast moving startups looking to disrupt the status quo. May the best mobile platforms win.