The missing app economy

· Design, Product · Patrick Smith

In the late 90s Steve Jobs was faced with a dilemma. Apple’s charismatic CEO couldn’t convince Adobe and Microsoft, makers of Photoshop and Excel, to make software for Apple’s upcoming operating system. Missing a ‘killer app’ like Photoshop on the Mac meant many people would buy a Windows PC instead. Apple conceded by investing substantial engineering effort in ‘Carbon’, a backwards-compatible software layer added to both their old and new operating systems. This stopgap gave Apple’s most important third-party developers a bridge from one system to the next, and Apple a bridge from one century to the next. 

It worked. Apple dominated the first two decades of the 21st century, reinventing computers and upending markets. Now one of the most valuable companies ever with reliable quarterly profits in the tens of billions, it appears Apple has mastered the recipe for success. However, its key ingredients of user-friendly design, tight software/hardware integration, and ground-breaking technology are today all tightly controlled or obstructed by Apple. The same recipe is out of reach to many would-be competitors and collaborators, preventing the next wave of ‘killer apps’ from thriving. 

Apple began their journey into people’s pockets twenty years ago with the iPod. The music player succeeded not only due to its striking industrial design and memorable ad campaigns with colourful dancing silhouettes, but thanks to deals with record companies Jobs had helped broker himself. He told writer Steven Levy “we walked in and we said, ‘We want to sell songs a la carte’”. The iTunes Music Store sold over one million songs in its first week. 

This success was repeated on a grander scale with the iPhone and App Store, with ten million downloads of apps in first weekend. Both were more capable versions of their predecessors: the iPhone had a larger screen and faster chips than the iPod, and apps could communicate with the internet and were far more interactive than a song. A wave of software accessible to everyday people followed — Instagram, TikTok, Uber, Airbnb — that took advantage of pocketable, always-online devices.

However, a recent court case between Apple and Epic Games found that 70% of Apple’s App Store revenue is from games. That leaves only 30% for productivity software used by businesses such as Excel and Photoshop.  Which makes reports from Apple that they have “paid out over $200bn to developers since 2008” much less compelling. According to Sensor Tower, Adobe makes an estimated $10m per month from the App Store, which is roughly 1% of its $1bn total monthly revenue.  And Microsoft earns even less from the App Store, even though it makes ten-fold the revenue of Adobe. 

New productivity tools like Notion, Jira, and GitHub are all web-first: while they may offer a companion app, the primary experience is designed to be used from a web browser, like Gmail or Google Docs. Another is Figma, a design tool founded ten years ago, which made $75m in 2020 and forecasted double that for 2021. GitHub, used to collaborate on the code behind software projects, was acquired by Microsoft in 2018 for $7.5bn, and was reported at the time to be making $200m–$300m annually. Microsoft’s own Office productivity suite including Word and Excel now work in web browsers (this article was written using it), and Adobe is working on the same for its flagship apps Photoshop and Illustrator. 

The web has several key advantages over apps sold via the App Store. First, the web is an open standard that is purposefully designed to not be controlled by any single company. While makers of web browsers, such as Google’s Chrome, Microsoft’s Edge, Mozilla’s Firefox, and Apple’s Safari, are all made by large corporations with their own interests, they all must work to a single standard that they collaborate over. iPhone apps are made using Apple-provided tools that are updated every year, sometimes breaking what previously worked, which adds maintenance overhead. The first web page made in 1991 still works in the browsers of today. 

This also means developers who build using web standards aren’t locked into a particular platform. Instead of writing a particular app for iPhone and another app for Android and yet more for tablet and desktop platforms, they can be made once and adapt to whichever device a customer uses. Platform providers are incentivised to continue working with as many existing websites as possible, which puts much of the burden of maintenance and compatibility on them. And if a new device is introduced, there’s likely less work by a developer to get an existing website adapted than it takes to provide another app. 

Second, anyone can create and share a website provided they know how. Apple requires a $99 annual membership and submission to a board of reviewers before apps appear in their store. Membership can be revoked, as Epic Games found when their account was terminated in 2020, preventing them from being included in the App Store again. And reviewers are human and subject to the whims of Apple’s broader strategy. Apple Arcade is a game subscription service integrated into the iPhone, which helped contribute to the $54bn services revenue Apple made from its users in 2020. That same year Apple rejected the game streaming service xCloud. Its maker Microsoft responded “Apple stands alone as the only general purpose platform to deny consumers from cloud gaming”. xCloud is now available to iPhone users through the only alternative available: the web. 

Finally, web software can integrate with whatever payment system they prefer, whether it be PayPal, Stripe, or even cryptocurrency. Businesses can find the service that offers the lowest cost, or which makes refunding and recurring subscriptions easiest. On the App Store, Apple requires online payments be done through them, taking 15–30%. And refunds can’t be issued by a developer looking to please a dissatisfied customer, instead users must submit a request themselves via an Apple support form. 

Innovation requires trial and error, and on the iPhone app developers are prevented from properly trialling their ideas. Apple prescribes their business model: they can’t charge users an upgrade from one app version to the next, but instead must either offer new features for free or use a subscription model unpopular with many customers. Novel app ideas often never find their way on the store as their creators find themselves reading an opaque Apple rejection letter. This prevents original ideas from even being started, since Apple only accepts submissions for fully-functional apps and not early concepts, making starting new ventures as risky as betting what the weather will be in 200 days time. 

The web offers an escape hatch, but here Apple has leverage too. On the iPhone only a single implementation of the web standard is available, and that is Apple’s. Google, who primarily makes its money advertising on the web, is incentivised to make websites more like apps, and has been pushing the web standards in that direction for a number of years. Apple is incentivised to keep the web more limited than the platform-specific apps that help sell its devices. (They counterbalance this with a different approach: Google is estimated to have paid Apple $15bn in 2021 to remain the default search engine on the iPhone & iPad.) 

Steve Jobs once said “design is how it works”. If innovation is being prevented from working by the company he founded, then a new wave of design is surely being missed. 

The Apple Experience Augmented — Part 2: Developer Experience

· Concepts, Product, UX · Patrick Smith

Apple has been iterating for years on a curious set of APIs called ARKit that has been largely ignored by the iPhone & iPad developer community, which hints that more compelling hardware is coming to take full advantage. CEO Tim Cook has openly said AR is the ‘next big thing’.

Rumors suggest Apple is developing an augmented reality (AR) glasses product. This product would likely act as an iPhone periphery, at least initially, similar to how Apple Watch once relied on a host iPhone to provide the main computational grunt. Well informed supply chain analyst Ming-Chi Kuo has said the AR glasses “will primarily take a display role offloading computing, networking, and positioning to the iPhone.”

Apple has recently introduced M1 Macs powered by Apple Silicon. These Macs are notable because they bring a marked improvement in battery life and performance. But they also bring Apple’s developer devices finally in line with the more capable hardware of their consumer devices.

Apple’s head of software engineering Craig Federigi talked with Ars Technica about the advantages of M1’s unified memory architecture:

Where old-school GPUs would basically operate on the entire frame at once, we operate on tiles that we can move into extremely fast on-chip memory, and then perform a huge sequence of operations with all the different execution units on that tile. It’s incredibly bandwidth-efficient in a way that these discrete GPUs are not.

Ars Technica interview with Apple executives

Tiled rendering will be needed by the upcoming AR glasses product, with the increased throughput allowing both high resolutions and high frame rates. High frame rates are required as “frame rates below 90 frames per second (FPS) is likely to induce disorientation, nausea, and other negative user effects”. The iPad Pro can already achieve 120 frames per second, so it’s likely the AR glasses’ display would reach similar rates.

So how would you develop apps for such a device? Let’s look at how developing software for the iPhone works today.

Developers buy Macs and install Xcode which allows them to write, compile, and deploy iPhone (and iPad, Mac, Watch & TV) apps. To actually experience the user experience of their apps, developers either push the app to their own iPhone and launch it like any other app, or they run it directly on their Mac within the Simulator. They choose which device they want to simulate and then see an interactive representation of the device’s screen running their app within a window on their Mac.

Screenshot showing the run destination menu in the toolbar where you choose a real device, choose a simulated device, or create a custom simulator.
Could you one day choose AR Glasses from the list here?

Currently this has worked by compiling the iPhone or iPad software for Intel chips, allowing the app to be run ‘natively’ on the Mac. Macs are powerful enough to run several of these simulators at once, however checking graphic intensive experiences such as 3D or animation sometimes means avoiding the simulator and trying the app directly on the target device. On the whole the simulator does a capable enough job to preview the experience of an app.

(An iPad version of Xcode has been speculated for years, been even with their improved keyboards and fancy trackpads, nothing has been released. The Mac maintains its role as the developer device for Apple’s platforms.)

How will this work for the AR glasses? Will Xcode provide an AR glasses Simulator for Mac? Would that appear as a window on screen with a preview for each eye? Or would you need to push the app to an actual device to preview?

If a simulator was provided, the pre-Apple-Silicon technology of an Intel chip and AMD GPU would not be able to reproduce the capabilities of a unified memory architecture, tiled rendering, and the neural engine. It would either run poorly, at low frame rates, or some capabilities might not even be possible at all. An Intel Mac can simulate software but it cannot simulate hardware. A Mac with related Apple Silicon hardware would allow a much better simulation experience.

Instead of seeing a preview of the AR display on your Mac’s screen, consider if the product could pair directly to your Mac. The developer could see a live preview of their work. The Mac could act as a host device instead of the iPhone, providing the computation, powerful graphics, machine learning, and networking needs of the AR glasses.

With the same set of frameworks brought over allowing iPhone & iPad apps to be installed and run on the Mac, both software and hardware will be ready to run AR-capable apps designed for iPhone. The Mac is now a superset of iPhone, and so what the iPhone can do, the Mac can also do. App makers now have a unified developer architecture.

Perhaps AR-capable apps from the iPhone App Store could even be installed by normal users directly on their Mac. With augmented reality perhaps the glasses will augment the device you currently use, whether that’s the iPhone in your pocket or the Mac on your desk. And allow switching back-and-forth as easily as a pair of AirPods (which would likely be used together with AR glasses).

There’s one last picture I want to leave you with. Swift Playgrounds works by showing a live preview of interactive UI alongside editable code. Change the code and your app immediate updates. The Simulator has been integrated into the app developer experience.

Now imagine Swift Playgrounds for AR — as I edit my code do my connected AR glasses instantly update?

The Apple Experience Augmented — Part 1: User Experience

· Concepts, Product, UX · Patrick Smith

I want to cover what the user experience of an AR Glasses product from Apple could look like, and how it might integrate with today’s products. First, let’s survey Apple’s current devices and their technologies for input & output:

iPhone input methods

  • Multitouch: use your fingers naturally for UI interactions, typing text, drawing, scrolling
  • Voice: request commands from Siri such as change volume or app-switching, dictate instead of typing

iPad input methods

  • Multitouch: use your fingers naturally for UI interactions, typing text, scrolling, drawing
  • External Keyboard: faster and more precise typing than multitouch
  • Pencil: finer control than multitouch, especially for drawing
  • Trackpad: finer control than multitouch, especially for UI interactions
  • Voice: request commands from Siri such as changing volume or app-switching, dictating text

Mac input methods

  • Keyboard: dedicated for typing text, also running commands
  • Trackpad / Mouse: move and click pointer for UI interactions, scrolling, drawing
  • Function keys: change device preferences such as volume, screen/keyboard brightness; app-switching
  • Touchbar: change volume, screen/keyboard brightness; enhances current app with quick controls
  • Voice: request commands from Siri such as changing volume or app-switching, dictating text

Apple Watch input methods

  • Touch: use your fingers for UI interactions, awkward typing text, scrolling
  • Digital Crown: change volume, scrolling, navigate back
  • Voice: request commands from Siri such as changing volume or app-switching, dictating text

AirPods input methods

  • Voice: request commands from Siri such as changing volume, dictating text
  • Tap: once to play/pause, double to skip forward, triple to skip backward

So what would a rumoured Apple Glasses product bring?

Apple’s Design Principles

Deference to Content

The most sparse approach might be to rely on voice for all input. Siri would become a central part of the experience, and be the primary way for switching apps and changing volume and dictating text. Siri currently can be activated from multiple devices, such as personal hand-held devices such as iPhone or shared devices such as HomePod. So it makes sense that the glasses would augment this experience, providing visual feedback that accompanies the current audible feedback.

Contrast Siri’s visual behaviour between iPadOS 13 and 14:

The Siri screen showing that Siri is asked to “Set an alarm for 8 a.m.,” and in response, Siri replies “The alarm’s set for 8 AM.” A notification from the Clock app shows that an alarm is turned on for 8:00 a.m.
Siri in iPadOS 13 takes over the entire screen
Siri on the Home Screen. A notification from the Clock app shows that an alarm is turned on for 8:00 a.m. A button at the bottom right of the screen is used to continue speaking to Siri.
Siri in iPadOS 14 layers discretely over your screen with a compact design

This provides a glimpse of the philosophy of the Apple Glasses. Instead of completely taking over what the user current sees, Siri will augment what you are currently doing with a discrete compact design.

This also relates to the Defer to Content design principle that has been present since iOS 7 which was the opening statement from Apple’s current design leadership. So we can imagine a similar experience with the Glasses, but where the content is everything the user sees, whether that’s digital or physical.

Content from a traditional app could be enhanced via augmentation. A photo or video in a social media feed might take over the user’s view, similar to going into full screen. Text might automatically scroll or be spoken aloud to the user. Content might take over briefly, and then be easily dismissed to allow the user to get back to their life.

Widgets such as weather or notifications such as received messages might be brought in from the outside to the centre. I can imagine a priority system from the viewer’s central vision to the extremes of their field-of-view). Content could be pinned to the periphery and be glanced at, while periodically in the background it receives updates.

If worn together with a set of AirPods, an even more immersive experience would be provided, with the AirPod’s tap input for playing and skipping. The active noise cancellation mode would probably pair well with a similar mode for the glasses, blocking the outside world for maximum immersion. Its counterpart transparency mode would allow the user to reduce the audible and visual augmentation to a minimum.

Clarity

So with a Glasses product, what is the content? It’s the world around you. But what if the world sometimes is an iPhone or Mac you use regularly through your day? Do the Glasses visually augment that experience?

With AirPods you can hop from an iPhone to a Mac to an iPad, and automatically switch the device that is paired. Wouldn’t it make sense for the AirPods and Glasses to perform as synchronised swimmers and pair automatically together to the same device that someone decides to use?

Can the Glasses recognise your device as being yours and know it precise location in the Glasses’ field-of-view? That sounds like what the U1 chip that was brought to iPhone 11 would do, as 9to5Mac describes it “provides precise location and spatial awareness, so a U1-equipped device can detect its exact position relative to other devices in the same room.”

Perhaps instead of tapping your iPhone screen to wake it, you can simply rest your eyes on it for a moment and it will wake up. The eyes could be tracked by the Glasses and become an input device of their own. If precise enough they could move the cursor on an iPad or Mac. The cursor capabilities of iPadOS 13.4 brought a new design language with UI elements growing and moving as they were focused on, and subtly magnetised to the cursor as it floated across the screen.

The cursor becomes the object of focus.

Similar affordances could allow a Glasses user’s eyes to replace the cursor, with the realtime feedback of movement and size increase enough to let the user know exactly what is in focus. The Mac might not need touch if the eyes could offer control.

In the physical world, a similar effect to Portrait mode from iPhone could allow objects in the world to also be focused on. The targeted object would remain sharp, and everything around it would become blurred, literally putting it into focus.

AirTags could enhance physical objects by providing additional information to their neighbour. Instead of barcodes or QR codes, the product itself could advertise its attributes and make it available for purchase via Apple Pay.

Use Depth to Communicate

If the Glasses not just show you the world around you but see the world around you, then your hands gesturing signals in the air could also be a method of input. Simple gestures could play or pause, skip ahead or back, change the volume. The could also be used to scroll content or interact with UI seen through the Glasses.

These gestures would close the loop between input and output. The iPad’s multitouch display works so well because of direct manipulation: your fingers physically touch the UI your eyes see. As your fingers interact and move, the visuals move with it. The two systems of touch input and flat-panel-display output become one to the user. Hand gestures would allow direct manipulation of the content seen through the Glasses.

Speculated Apple ‘Glasses’ input methods

  • Voice via AirPods or nearby device: request commands from Siri such as changing volume, dictating text
  • Eyes: interact with devices that have a cursor, focus on elements whether digital or physical
  • Air Gestures: use your hands for UI interactions, scrolling, changing the volume, playing, pausing, skipping
  • U1: recognise nearby Apple devices and interact with them
  • Plus whatever device you are currently using (if any)

So the Glasses could offer a range of novel input methods from a user’s eyes to their hands, or it could simply rely on the ubiquitous voice-driven world that most Apple devices now provide. The U1 chip seems to hint at an interaction between Glasses and hand-held device, perhaps modest like simply recognising it, or perhaps augmenting its input and output allowing a new way to interact with iPhones, iPads, and Macs. The Glasses accompanies what the user already sees and interacts with every day, enhancing it visually but deferring to the outside world when it needs. It could offer an immersive experience for content such as video and games, or future formats that Apple and other AR-device-makers hope will become popular.

Tim Bray on subscribing to publications

· Product · Patrick Smith

Tim Bray writes why he won’t subscribe:

Their arithmetic didn’t consider their chance of getting me to click on “Subscribe.” In my particular case, that chance is almost exactly Zero. I subscribe to enough things and I am acutely reluctant to give anyone else the ability to make regular withdrawals from my bank account. … It’s exactly because I’ve done some subscribing that I’m just not gonna do any more.

The tenacity of open

· Product · Patrick Smith

Ben Thompson is a writer who focuses on the strategy of technology businesses, and I’ve really enjoyed his stuff for a number of years. His business model is a subscription for three emails per week that form a narrative, with another article made free to everyone that is standalone.

The problem I’ve found is that it’s hard to catch up with these daily updates. They often refer to the last one, with clarifications and expansions, and so once you get off the train it can be difficult to get back on. He’s just launched a podcast version of the daily update, and it’s also subscriber-only.

The reason I find this fascinating is that he talks about ‘Aggregation Theory’, the way that internet-first companies such as Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Netflix, by owning the customer relationship directly are able to control suppliers. But then he calls out that his own business model purposefully avoids getting on these platforms, but instead relies on the open nature of two technologies: Email (with SMTP) and Podcasts (with RSS). He’s also not going through a platform like Patreon, which itself could dictate terms. He also considered making his own app, but then people have to explicitly come to the app every day.

Instead he’s going to where people are. The feeds they check every day. That are not controlled by any entity. It highlights the future and reliability of Email and Podcasts as things that will still be around in 20 years. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter — any of these might be dead or irrelevant by then. But there will be (hopefully) a plethora of email and podcast clients, any of which I can choose, and to which anyone can send me content.

The other thing I love about the Stratechery announcement is the podcast RSS feed has both the audio and written content in one. If I put the feed into my podcast player, I get the audio content, and cover art will be shown with say a chart or whatever that is being talked about. In the show notes is the entire written content.

Yet if I put the feed into a traditional RSS feed reader, then I get just the written content. Blew my mind that one URL serves both of those purposes.