Siri, Yelp and Calling The Next Thing in Mobile


I’ve made a habit of successfully predicting where things are going in the mobile world over the last few years.

6 months ago when Siri launched, I talked about the largely ignored Yelp integration with Siri. I predicted Yelp and Apple’s relationship would improve and they would further integrate into Siri and create tons of value for Yelp. Well, I was the only person not surprised at the lone new feature of Siri in iOS 5.1; deeper Yelp integration.

Here’s the official post from Yelp confirming the integration. And there’s tons of other coverage everywhere else because Yelp is publicly traded. 

Add this to my list of predictions in mobile that have paid off. Here are the others:

Android - I started working on an Android app at the end of 2008. I told everyone it was the next big OS, carriers would all eventually get on board as an alternative to iPhone, and BB would still matter but slowly die off. I even did an interview with Google at Google I/O in May of ‘09 (there was only 1 Android phone at that time) stating exactly why I thought Android was the next big platform. Now it IS the biggest platform.

Foursquare - One month after they launched I called Naveen (while he was still working out of a coffee shop) to say “let’s partner.” Pretty sure my next call with Dennis was in a coffee shop too. Fast forward to today… 20 million users, a $600 million valuation. On the other side - millions of dollars worth of partnership press, and 300,000 young/urban/social fans for a traditional brand (Zagat).

Augmented Reality - 6 months before Yelp’s “monocle”, I launched NRU — an augmented reality restaurant finder on Android. At PaidContent Mobile 2010 I called this a cool but gimmicky step 1 of AR, with step 2 being when we can bring AR to a lightweight wearable device with visual processing to compensate for GPS accuracy (Google AR Goggles anyone?). I still say even the Google AR glasses will be a little “too soon”. Maybe by version 3 or version 4 they’ll be in the right spot.  

Foodspotting - I reached out to them at launch and built their first brand partnership. I could see Alexa and Ted were doing this right. 2 million users later, 1 million food photos later, and a ton of floundering copycats… I expect these guys to be a serious acquisition target of a larger player in the local space within the next year. No large company could realistically generate and collect these photos themselves… you need a very unique type of userbase to do this. Their photos are a valuable asset for anyone serious about taking on local food. 

Flipboard - While some content providers panicked at launch, I helped curate and ensure content was feed smoothly when the app went public. 2010 App of the Year, 5 million users. And a traditional print brand gets front and center in the Food section of what would become the essential content consumption experience on tablets. 

Ad Supported Android (Angry Birds!) - A few years ago at Harvard Business School I said the launch of an ad supported Angry Birds was the future of Android. Meanwhile many people were shocked a top selling iPhone app was being given away for free. The CEO of Angry Birds (Rovio) was in the audience and thanked me. Are these guys the next Zynga?

iPad - Fine, this was a no brainer to some. But you had to “believe” if you were crazy enough to decide on your own to produce an app in the period between Steve Job’s announcement speech and launch app submission day (less than 60 days). That app went on to be #33 on the all-time top selling iPad apps list.

Android Tablets would be DOA - I said these were not going to work any time soon because the reasons why Android would (and did) work does not apply to Android tablets. There was a lot of hype as they were in development and I remember Eric Schmidt holding one at some event to try to hype it up. I refused to spend any time developing for Android tablets. Turns out it was the right call. 

Windows Phone Merger - At an Augmented Reality event in 2010, I said Microsoft will wait until after the holiday season, continue to see soft WP7 sales and either buy Nokia or RIM as their only way to force themselves into the market even though it still won’t work. I didn’t think it would happen 4 months later… I thought they might give it a second soft holiday season. Ultimately they all but purchased Nokia and killed what was the most widespread mobile OS in the world (Symbian, which I mourned since I owned a Psion PDA in middle school. The amazing multitasking OS that Psion ran would later be rebranded as Symbian). For the record, I said Nokia should just move to Android…

Two More Mobile Bets - I’m not saying what they are, but you should probably talk to me about Consmr if you are interested… 

Google Mobile Payments vs Apple Mobile Payments

Last week, I made this comment in response to my previous post about mobile NFC payments on the Nexus S:


Ultimately, Google will want to handle the mobile payments themselves. How do they do that? Do they use Google Checkout? Stores would need to accept that as a payment method through an NFC station… and even then it’s just routing back through the same big credit card companies. That doesn’t help them. Do they partner and lose the full value? Do the partners even want Google in the mix? What is Apple doing? What are the banks doing? This is a much more complex issue than it might seem at face value.

I suggested that Google would not use Google Checkout or their own payment system since they don’t have the infrastructure of the existing big credit card companies and that their only option is to evaluate a partnership and lose full value. Today, the Wall Street Journal announced Google is doing exactly that.

“Google is teaming up with MasterCard and Citigroup to… allow consumers to make purchases by waving their smartphones.” “Google isn’t expected to get a cut of the transaction fees.” -WSJ


By Google not getting a cut of the transaction fees, that’s the loss of “full value” that I mentioned. Google is forgoing a lucrative cut of transactions in exchange for utilizing the existing credit card and banking infrastructure. This is consistent with Google being true to their advertising roots. Just like Android, they waived fees on the platform so that they could reap the mobile advertising benefits. The claim in the article is that Google will have your purchase information and can sell advertising and supply promotional discounts based on that data. I will get into the privacy issues associated with that another day. The key point is that they opted for the path of least resistance and one that is very much in tune with the company.

I believe Apple will take the opposite approach. With iTunes, they already have a tremendous financial network and industry clout. I believe that Apple will in fact take a cut of the transaction fees as they essentially have the largest hub of credit cards (200 million) online and run transactions into the billions of dollars. Google doesn’t have this kind of leverage with the banks and issuers.

When Apple announces their NFC payment system, I see one of two things happening. Either they go strictly for the cut and forgo the advertising component (which is not their forte anyway), or they double dip. I strongly think it’s the former and they just take a cut.

Why just the cut and not build the advertising component? Just like Google’s modus operandi is advertising, this approach is in line with Apple. It’s the App Store model and their new subscriptions model where they take a 30% cut. So far the jury is still out on iAds, so why jump head first into a nascent advertising space that is likely to have privacy concerns and require a sales force or sales infrastructure that they would need to build?

Let’s examine the double dip scenario. I’m not sure Apple would build the advertising component on their own. Similar to their iAd acquisition with Quattro, I believe they’d acquire a company that has already built an ad system around NFC payments. I’m not sure one exists, but if it did it would be in Japan built around the FeliCa RFID payment system. Still, this double dip is highly unlikely more so because of the privacy issues. Apple does not want to be embroiled in what will likely be a controversial form of advertising. There’s little chance of a perfect ad partner in the NFC space as of today. If the double dip scenario happens, it will be in the future after Apple has watched the successes and failures of Google in the space and then tries to build a better mousetrap.

Ultimately Apple and Google will go their own way with mobile payments and while at it stay true to themselves.

Netflix on Android & iPhone: Is Windows Phone 7 your only hope?

The mobile industry moves so fast that today’s plan is tomorrow’s trash. What’s also apparent is that each mobile platform’s approach is both providing and constraining user choice at the same time.

Thanks to recent developments, if you’re a Netflix user and you own a smartphone you may be out of luck. What’s affecting iPhone and Android Netflix users? Two recent announcements about subscription billing and mobile processor exclusivity.

Android Users: You’ve been wondering where in the world is your Netflix for Android. It’s on iPhone. It’s on Windows Phone 7 even. But millions of US Android users are forced to wait with no announced date in sight. Well, you could be waiting forever. Qualcomm and Netflix announced at this week’s Mobile World Congress that Netflix will arrive on Android for new phones that ship with Qualcomm’s second generation Snapdragon chip.

If you own any existing Android phone, you’re out of luck. No Netflix for you. Don’t feel too bad though. If someone goes to a store today and buys a top of the line Android phone, they’ll have a shiny new phone that can’t watch Netflix either. 

Unlike the comment in the CNET article, I don’t believe the average Android user will need to know what chip is in their phone. I believe from an Android Market level the app will not show up for users on certain devices.

So Android users, give up hope for Netflix anytime soon. Even if Netflix later decided to release an alternative app that doesn’t use the Snapdragon 2 chipset, Qualcomm most certainly has at least a 6 month exclusivity window on the Netflix app. Remember how Skype was exclusively on the Verizon Android phones for 6 months? 

Android owners, misery loves company. You may yet be joined by your iPhone carrying friends. Apple’s announcement regarding subscription apps could easily impact Netflix as well. Besides a requirement of adding Apple’s new in-app subscription service, there’s additionally a requirement that pricing must be the same across all platforms. There’s speculation that Netflix and others would be forced to potentially remove their apps from the iOS ecosystem because of the limited margins that the all-you-can-eat media apps have like Rhapsody and Netflix.

Netflix could be faced with two options; raise prices, which would have to be across ALL Netflix platforms, or remove their iOS app and send everyone to a web app on those platforms (that is a very much viable option and the Netflix iPad app is essentially a skin for their website anyway). I doubt they would raise prices, and without special exemption, they will face a tough choice.

So it’s possible that every current iPhone and Android user could be out of luck when it comes to a native Netflix app on their smartphones. Right now there’s only one smartphone platform with neither a chip issue nor a revenue-sharing issue involving Netflix…  Windows Phone 7. WP7 has a native Netflix app and has none of the potential Netflix issues. Of course this could change, as I started things out by saying how quickly mobile moves. But it is funny how this worked out for Microsoft.

Android Market Changes: Everything But What We Needed

As someone who started in December of ‘08 working on an Android app, before there was even a paid app store, clearly I saw the reasons why Android would be successful. It still amazes me though how little has changed with the Android Market since then. 

The recent changes to the Android market still miss many of the basic issues and concerns that continue to make the iPhone “the” platform for premium (paid) app developers. I’m not going to applaud changes like making the app description longer than a measely 350 characters when that could have been changed almost 2 years ago. It’s still welcome, but it’s not nearly enough.

Today’s big news is the addition of carrier billing from AT&T to the Android Market. It seems like progress but it has little hope of moving the needle. AT&T is the one carrier whose carrier billing doesn’t matter for Android. AT&T has always had the smallest market share on Android and the most limited Android device selection. And with the iPhone, who is really buying Android on AT&T? I once spent two days convincing a friend that for her specific needs, she should get the Galaxy S class AT&T device (the Captivate). She agreed. Three days later I found out she walked into the store, saw the iPhone 4 and left with it only minutes later.

Despite Android sales surpassing iPhone sales, cross-platform developers know that paid Android app sales are a fraction of paid iPhone app sales. There are a myriad of reasons and theories behind this (Apple has had your credit card for years with iTunes, their marketplace is organized sensibly and has a desktop browser, the aggregate audience is still much larger on iOS, the Android audience makeup is different, etc). I still believe one major issue is trying to peck out a credit card number and your home address into a phone. You really have to “want” that first paid app if you’re going to buy it on Android. If you can discover it.

To me, AT&T carrier billing isn’t big news. Big news would be universal carrier billing from Verizon. That would mean the huge Android install base from Verizon would have access to seamless purchases on the Android Market. Realistically, that will never happen… at least not in the Android Market. Verizon has their own VCast app store with carrier billing and would be unlikely to add that to the generic Android Market. The best hope there would be for Verizon to retroactively update their old devices to include the VCast App Store. Actually, if that happens then that’s a great growth prospect for premium app developers already invested in the Android platform. Anyone remember why ringtones were so successful?

Another remaining concern is the byzantine sorting system Google uses for the Android market. Most people don’t realize that it is not a top sales/download list. See my previous post on the Black Box algorithm that Google uses. How did Windows Phone 7 get the sorting right and Android in 2 years still can’t? At a minimum, provide manual sorting options like “Most popular” or “Top Rated.” Give users some way to see a true sort of applications. If you look at the top paid apps, in certain categories it just makes no sense whatsoever.

My guess as to the holdup? I believe Google doesn’t want to show the drastic before and after picture when there’s a shakeup in the Android Market rankings. My advice to Google is to hurry up and rip off the band-aid. When you explain you’ve moved to default sorting based on actual sales and downloads, no one will complain because it’s a fair, transparent system. The Google run Android Market has a real chance of being replaced altogether by carrier specific stores or alternative markets. Now even Amazon is getting into the picture. I say good luck to them, but I also know that I’ve argued since last year that Google should have partnered with Amazon for payments from the very beginning. Besides iTunes, what other “account” tied to billing is everyone guaranteed to have? Amazon. 

Until these issues are resolved I will continue to advocate that premium app developers stay or start with iOS unless they’re a smash-hit game and can monetize through advertising (see Angry Birds). If you want to develop a free app, well that’s an entirely separate blog post…

Android Market Thought Of The Day

So Google is now adding an age ratings system to all of the apps in the Android Market. I wonder how this outranked the other concerns that both consumers and developers have had for years?

Answering The Webby Call

The Webby Awards have played a significant role in my life the last few years. Last year the mobile site I manage was a Webby Nominee (which means “Finalist” in Webby speak) thanks to some pioneering features like being the first in the space to let users write and publish review from their phones. Some sites still don’t let you do that! It was close… but I ended up on the losing end of things.

This year was even more exciting because I had not one, but two different Webby Nominee apps (one iPhone, and a totally different Augmented Reality Android app). What are the odds of having two different apps nominated? Well unfortunately, both lost out. Two-time loser and a double loser, ouch.

So what’s next? Well the Webby board took notice of some of things I’ve done in the mobile space… so I’m proud to say I am now an Executive Member of the IADAS (International Academy of Digital Arts & Sciences), which is the judging body of the Webby Awards! 

Pretty crazy. I’m just a guy who likes phones and technology. All of the over exposure to cell phone radiation was worth it!

Crowd Sourced Security or Who Watches the Watchmen

The New York Times wrote about secure web certificates yesterday and the final paragraph concerned me. Jonathan Nightingale from Mozilla Firefox was quoted as saying the current secure certificate system is “relatively secure”.

Yikes. Imagine if you got on a plane and you saw a crack in the wing and they said “well it’s relatively secure.” You wouldn’t get on that plane.

The article discusses the potential for the general misuse of security certificates because of the protracted business chain (e.g. Microsoft -> Verizon -> Certificate Company) and proliferation of the certificate entities. I wonder if we now need a separate organization to police the entire process? Who Watches the Watchmen?

The last statement from Mozilla is more intriguing though. Apparently e-commerce sites are utilizing a newer type of certificate that provides more advanced security. If an organization were to misuse this certificate, a “user with technical skills” (is that the politically correct term now?) would have to find the misuse.  It’s implied that the user would then have to draw attention to this organization which would lead to the revocation of that organization’s power.

Basically he’s suggesting our line of defense relies on crowd sourced vigilantism. I won’t get into the whole superhero parallel her (okay fine I will), but ultimately if the level of security is so low that we need to rely on a user intrepid enough to follow their secure data down a rabbit hole then we’re not that secure right? Then again, we’ve really been relying on crowd-sourced security for years…

How many times have you seen major bugs and exploits publicized on the web? From hundreds of Windows examples to even most recently on the iPhone and Android, there are exploits that are discovered by users trying to poke holes in security without malicious intent. Some of them have been smart enough to roll up into organizations that specialize in it (a Justice League if you may).  These users and groups don’t get a lot of recognition but I’m realizing that every time I see a story about a major bug or potential malicious exploit, there’s a person who discovered it who decided it was best we all knew.  To these crowd sourced heroes I say thanks for keeping an eye over things.

Android Market Ranking Algorithm: The New Black Box

While you won’t find much information on this, savvy Android developers are aware of one of the big secrets in mobile; The Android Market is ranked via a Black Box algorithm. Most people just assume it is sales/downloads. I’ve even seen articles written where there was an assumption of sales based on who was ranked #1. That’s not the case.

In my time working with the Android Market (which would be about a year and a half), I’ve watched two different apps, one paid and one free, fluctuate in rankings. I’ve also watched how other apps across all categories perform over time. Early on I realized there was no standard order like on the iPhone app store. With iTunes, rank is purely download based. Sell the most, you’re the top. It’s simple, it works, and people want to sort products by bestselling (e.g. BestBuy.com, New York Times Bestseller list, etc). But Google had other ideas…

It looks to me as though Google brought their search ranking algorithm to the Android market. Having an SEO background, I’m probably more attuned to this and the accompanying frustration. Instead of simply ranking by sales, Google decided they needed to be different where they should not. I believe Google should have ranked by sales first, and then, if clearly it wasn’t working they could have approached it a different way.

The top apps in a category are not necessarily the top downloaded in that category. I like to use the example of paid apps since the download numbers are still small enough that patterns are obvious, but a year ago with free apps the same pattern was apparent (you just can’t see it now since the top apps are all above the max threshold of 250K). Today, you can take a look in the paid “Tools” category and see that the #3 ranked app is in the 10-50K downloads, and the the #4 is in the 50-250K downloads. You can look at the travel section and see the top ranked app with 1-5K downloads, and the #3 ranked app with 10-50K downloads. When MySpace claimed back in March they were the most popular (i.e. most downloaded) social networking app on the Android, everyone scratched their head. 

I knew the answer. The answer was that no one knows who had #1 most popular social networking app. Myspace was simply the #1 ranked app, which means nothing. Facebook could fully have more users and more downloads, but since the rankings aren’t based on downloads no one would know.

What we’re left with is some anecdotal evidence, rumor, and speculation as to how the ranking works. My best guess is that the following factors are included:

-Ratings

-# of Ratings

-Install/Uninstall Rate

-Anonymous usage stats

-Total Downloads

-“Velocity”

-Black Magic

All of this was gathered at Android conferences like Google I/O and keeping my ears open in the Android development community. I saw a tweet once from what I believe was a Google Labs session where the audience was told that anonymous usage statistics (i.e. length an app is usage and frequency) is a factor. How does that even make any sense? I can run a GPS app for 8 hours, but only spend 10 seconds with a Tip Calculator app. Both are listed in the same category. One would benefit and the other would suffer.

What can a developer do? Do we need an SEO-like panel to have people in the industry gauge ranking factors for the Android market? Do we simply add this to the many “wants” for the Android Market? Or do we look for the carriers to bring order with their own Android app stores? Ultimately there need to be some changes with the Android Market to support developers, and default sorting by sales/downloads is one of them.

RIP Nexus One

It’s amazing how quickly technology becomes obsolete.  Last week I read about the discontinuation of the Nexus One Android phone. Then a few days later I read about it again because some sites just caught up to the story (note: if you’re days late to the story, don’t blame it on it being a ‘non-story’ with little coverage – it makes the site/blog look bad twice for obvious reasons).

I’m impartial when it comes to phones. I carry multiple phones (you should see the looks I get at Yankee Stadium security when I pull out 3 phones). I simply look at facts, statistics, opportunities, potential, etc to assess how a phone or platform might perform especially in regards to supporting it with an app. So I won’t talk about how I like one phone versus another since each phone and platform has unique pluses and minuses. But I will reflect upon the Nexus One’s short lifespan.

First, I appreciate that Google tried to approach phone sales differently. It’s admirable that they would try to disrupt phone sales and shift from the carrier store to the web. In a way it’s not that radical given how many iPhones are sold on pre-order via Apple’s site. Maybe this was just a ‘too soon’ approach, the same way that movies by mail is a huge business in 2010 but didn’t work in 1999? 

We all know the Verizon Droid was backed by a huge marketing campaign that pushed from November well into the next year. It was so successful that I still have difficulty explaining to people outside of the tech industry that Droid is a specific phone, and Android is the operating system that it shares with many other phones.  The luster of the Nexus One as an Android phone, with arguably the second best marketplace for applications (by volume/selection), was diminished by the Droid.  It clearly wasn’t the most prominent Android phone at the time. And while being featured on essentially the most visible page on the web for a few days is amazing, don’t underestimate the power of a protracted TV and out-of-home advertising campaign. That and when someone walked into a Verizon store, they could leave with the Phone.

I watched the Nexus One press conference and I realized something that I later saw with the iPhone 4 conference…  there’s no “prestige” if you already know the trick. With hundreds of Googlers showing off their Nexus One’s on Twitter, Facebook, to their friends, etc over a month before the launch and dozens of photos and specs on the web, there was nothing introduced in the Nexus One press conference to wow consumers or journalists. We knew all the secrets. We knew there was a second noise canceling mic, we knew it was the first 1Ghz Android device, we knew the camera quality, the resolution, etc. 

Finally there’s the carrier issue. The Nexus One launched on T-Mobile for the first 3 months. Any Android “fan” (who would become a device evangelist) had already bought a phone recently enough on T-Mobile like the G1 or the MyTouch. Many jumped to the Droid because it was a new carrier option or because they wanted a more “reliable” network. You lose the allure of an unlocked phone when there is only one viable carrier option. No one is running to buy a $500 2010 smartphone to shoehorn it on AT&T’s Edge network. Don’t get me wrong, T-Mobile is an affordable way to get 3G service on some solid smartphones but early adopters interested in making the jump to T-Mobile for Android had done so recently with other devices.

So there you have it. A perfect storm of events, gambits, and market factors surrounded the Nexus One launch and ultimately led to the early end of the device. The sad part is, this is a quality phone. Personally I think it’s still a top of the line device even in July 2010. With Android 2.2 you can freely tether your phone’s 3G network to multiple devices at no charge on either AT&T or T-Mobile. So you can take your Wi-Fi only iPad and turn it into a 3G iPad for free. Recent benchmarks show the device on Android 2.2 is as fast or faster than even the newest Android phones (can’t find the article), and the browsing performance is unmatched. So it sounds like this phone rides into the sunset with its head up high…

One last thing: The Nexus One was launched in January. The Droid launched in November. At nearly the same time both devices were considered discontinued, but only one is eulogized and lamented.

You can’t control what you can’t control

But we try to though, right?

Yes I’m a little late. This whole putting your diary in front of everyone. Things have changed though and now it seems most everyone is comfortable sharing their lives and thoughts. So I’ll throw out my thoughts about me, technology, mobile and social on digital paper. It seems ironic to start contributing long-form content in a period of time when shorter, faster forms of communication dominate. I was on a panel at the Untethered conference last month in NYC and it seemed official that long-form has seen better days.  Not everything can be summed up in 140 characters though, or in a facebook status bar. And lord knows how many times text message or IM has given someone the wrong impression or yielded misinterpretation.  Maybe an audio blog would be a better idea.