David Barnard - Blog

Curated Automation

Ever since reading “The Internet of Things and Humans” by Tim O’Reilly, I’ve been thinking a lot about the role of human interaction in automation and connected devices. Ultimately, we want computers to automagically handle as much as possible without any input from us, but algorithms will never perfectly handle every possible scenario and some things are better off with just the right touch of human interaction.

For example, the Nest Thermostat has been driving my wife and I nuts. I don’t want to turn off all the smart features because the whole point of having a Nest Thermostat is for it to try and save us money, but Nest’s learning algorithm is having a hard time with our very irregular schedules (and my wife’s erratic manual overrides during pregnancy). The most frustrating failure was when Nest automatically set the temperature to 78º right in the middle of a party we were hosting.

Even if the learning algorithm were perfect (which it will never be), there are still times when as a human I want something different because of context that Nest will never be able to sense. If I spend the day kayaking and get a sun burn, I may want to sleep with the temperature at 70º. Implicitly providing that input via the Nest app or directly with the thermostat on the wall is the obvious solution for most of those cases, but I’ve also been wondering about opportunities for the Nest to proactively ask for input rather than making assumptions.

The new Nest Channel on IFTTT provides a great opportunity to start experimenting with “curated automation”.

The first obvious step is to just make it easier to control the thermostat. Nest’s app is designed to be a convenient home for anything you want to do with any Nest device you own. And that makes sense, but what I’ve really been wanting is just a 72º button. I tap it and the temperature is set to 72º. That’s now possible with a combination of this Recipe on IFTTT and this action in Launch Center Pro. Here’s a quick demo:

But things get really interesting when using Nest as a trigger on IFTTT to proactively ask for input. It takes 3 separate Recipes on IFTTT (1, 2, 3), but you can now be prompted to take action anytime the temperature goes above 75º (or the Nest is automatically set to Away, or the Nest is automatically set to Home, etc). Here’s a quick demo of how that works:

Another example of this sort of thinking is an IFTTT Recipe I set up to send Instagram posts to Day One on my iPhone. In theory, automatically sending an Instagram post to Day One without any human interaction would be perfect. However, you’d likely want to write something more personal in your journal than you would want to post publicly on Instagram. Here’s an example of adding a point of human interaction to an otherwise automated workflow:

I obviously don’t think these workflows represent the pinnacle of thoughtfully combining automation and human interaction, but I think it’s a fascinating step in the right direction and a great way to start experimenting with curated automation.

App Previews as a Tiered App Store

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Since Apple announced app preview videos at WWDC, I’ve been thinking a lot about the implications. I may be wrong, but I’m hopeful this will be a big deal for quality apps, maybe even — dare I say it — paid apps.

For years now developers have been suggesting Apple clear the App Store of cruft. But as was evident again this year at WWDC, Apple loves to brag about the number of iOS apps in the App Store, no matter how meaningless the number is given how terrible a vast majority of them are. So, rather than culling the App Store by forcing developers to update apps or face removal, app previews may have a similar effect. Updating App Store screenshots (and I assume by extension app preview videos) requires the submission of a new binary, and submitting a new binary requires that the app be optimized for iOS 7.

My hope is that within a few months of the release of iOS 8, App Store shoppers will come to see app previews as a sign of quality, actively developed apps. I’m also hopeful that app previews will go a long way in demonstrating the value of an app and give developers another tool to communicate differentiation in a crowded App Store.

Interview: Facebook’s App Links — MacStories

An hour or so after App Links was announced today at F8, Federico Viticci asked me a couple related questions for a post he was working on. I quickly tapped out my response on my iPhone via Twitter DMs while relying heavily on Justin and Brock to fill in some of the technical details. Viticci’s post gives the full picture, but in homage to Vox’s cool idea of posting interview transcripts alongside some posts, I thought it worth posting my full response…

Viticci: How does App Links work differently from what is possible with URL schemes on iOS? Do you think it’s a big deal and why?

Me: From what we can tell so far, App Links is focused on deep linking to content, not passing data to an app that will take action on that data. Interestingly enough, this is not that different from the deep linking Apple promoted at WWDC last year [I later realized it was actually WWDC 2012]. It’s just that Facebook is doing it across platforms and native apps (Apple’s implementation only works in Safari) and is extending the idea. I wouldn’t be surprised if Apple has been planning something similar (except not cross platform) that will be introduced at WWDC.

Facebook’s code certainly makes it easier, but developers still have to handle navigating the UI to the content which has always been the most challenging part of implementing deep linking within an app (Yelp currently has several related bugs we reported to them).

App Links doesn’t do anything new that wasn’t previously possible with URL schemes, it provides a structured, cross-platform way to do it. The good news is, Facebook getting behind this means it should be more widely adopted than other deep linking solutions that already existed.

But this is Facebook we’re talking about, so the long-term goal is surely to sell deep linked ads and find other ways to monetize it.

This may or may not have much of an impact on productivity focused inter-app communication. App Links allows for the passing of data in the URL, but doesn’t provide a structured way to do it. So it really depends on how developers implement (and document) that aspect of App Links. 

Overall though, I think this concept is great for user experience on mobile devices. Jumping from app to app and back is something we all do. App Links should improve that experience for apps that implement it, but it’s going to take time for it to be widespread enough for it to make a huge difference in the day to day experience of most smartphone users. And if Apple introduces their own solution it could muddy the waters.

An Interview About Paid Apps

Last October, Andrew Hayward interviewed me for an article that ran in the print edition of MacLife. Since it was never published online, I completely forgot about the interview. Today, the article was posted on TechLife, a subsidiary of MacLife. Andrew used several quotes from our interview, but didn’t have room for some of my longer rants. Since the topic is just as relevant today, I figured it was worth posting the entire interview as emailed on October 30th, 2013.

How has the market for paid apps changed during your time selling premium apps in the App Store?

I’m not sure to what extent each factor is impacting the market, but it seems as though many factors have been at play in reshaping the market over the past couple years.

As the US smartphone market matures, it’s no longer more affluent early adopters buying iPhones and scouring the App Store for new apps, it’s less tech savvy users and more price sensitive consumers.

At the same time, the early adopters who are still upgrading their iPhone every year or two seem to not be as actively looking for apps. I used to buy 5+ new apps a week and now I hardly buy any. Not because I’m trying to spend less money, I’ve just already settled on 10-15 apps I use daily and am not seeing as many new apps that seem worth my time to check out.

It also seems as though there are enough free and cheap alternatives that people looking for specific types of apps end up using “good enough” free and cheap apps, rather than risking $3-5 on a premium app.

And I’m sure there are other factors at play as well. I’ve heard other theories about people no longer downloading and playing with apps as a form of entertainment in and of itself.

Have you taken any steps to counteract the changing market regarding the way you price and construct your apps, and have you seen results (whether positive or negative)?

I was hoping that as people upgraded to iOS 7 and went looking for iOS 7 compatible apps there would be a surge in sales for great iOS 7 apps. So, I decided to postpone more experiments with freemium and go with premium prices for the iOS 7 launch. But from what I’ve seen and heard from other developers, there wasn’t much of a surge in paid apps. In fact, it seems like sales of paid apps have been even worse since iOS 7 was released (which could be in part due to the App Store having so many issues since the iOS 7 launch). I have a few more experiments planned with premium pricing, then I’ll probably start working toward switching them to some sort of freemium model next year. Thankfully, Apple implemented App Store receipts in iOS 7, so developers can switch to freemium while still rewarding the early adopters who paid full price.

Do you think that there’s anything Apple can (or should) do to help buoy the premium app market?

There’s a lot Apple can do. Few people think of it this way, but Apple controls the App Store economy in a way similar to how the US government controls the US economy. The government doesn’t have complete control of the economy, but they work hard to shape it through a combination of tax incentives, monetary policy, and other means. Similarly, I think people underestimate just how much Apple’s policies shape the App Store market.

Currently developers can use IAP for all sorts of convoluted free-to-play schemes, but Apple has a rule against free trials, demo apps, and the like. With a single policy change, Apple could empower developers to use App Store receipts to roll their own free trials. Surely that’s no more user hostile than Candy Crush’s casino-like techniques for milking users for cash.

There are lots of other seemingly small things Apple could do that would end up rewarding developers who line up with Apple’s priorities. For example, there seems to be absolutely no search ranking boost associated with apps that were rebuilt for iOS 7. So, Apple pushed hard for developers to support iOS 7, but when you search for “weather” in the iOS 7 App Store, you see a bunch of apps that haven’t been updated in ages, much less optimized for iOS 7. Search is incredibly important to the App Store market, yet it’s absolutely terrible and Apple doesn’t seem to care.

Not only that, Apple didn’t even bother optimizing search for the iOS 7 release. If you search “iOS 7 weather” in the App Store, you don’t get weather apps that were optimized for iOS 7, you get SEO spammers (and soon my Perfect Weather app since I figured out the issue).

What’s your take on the trend (especially post-iOS 7) of developers releasing an entirely new app for a significant version release, as we’ve seen with Tweetbot and Screens of late? Do you think consumers will become more accepting of this approach as it continues?

There is a vocal minority that seems to be bothered by this, but I think it’s absolutely the right thing for developers, and ultimately for users since it keeps developers in business and updating their apps. However, I will say that I think developers should be careful in how they do this. Charging frequently for minor updates does feel like nickel and diming users. One big paid upgrade every 12-18 months with lots of new features seems fair to me.

I talked at length about all this today on CMD+Space. Feel free to use anything from there as well: http://5by5.tv/cmdspace/68

UPDATE: One caveat about releasing paid updates in the App Store: they can kill search ranking. If your app relies heavily on search for user acquisition, a paid update could significantly reduce sustained downloads once the initial surge of upgrades slows. This happens because App Store search results seem to be very heavily weighted to all-time downloads, which obviously gets reset with a new SKU.

david

Shaping the App Store

From time to time I email Apple executives a “boots on the ground” view of the App Store and do my best to provide insight and contructive criticism rather than shallow complaints. Here’s my most recent email, starting with a quote from Andrew Webster at The Verge:

Angry Birds Go… features all of the right ingredients, including a cast of familiar and adorable characters, a charming and colorful presentation, and gameplay that’s both easy to pick up and incredibly fun. But that potential is squandered — in the shift to free-to-play, Rovio has turned a great game into an annoying experience filled with incessant calls to spend more money.

While the current wave of free-to-play games are doing incredibly well financially, I worry that they are undermining the long-term strength of the iOS platform. Instead of building meaningful productivity and entertainment experiences, more and more developers are focusing their efforts on manipulating users into spending more and more money via consumable in-app purchases. I think John Gruber put it well: “…in-app purchases are driving game design more towards addiction and less towards fun.”

And another quote from independent developer Justin Williams: “The post-PC revolution won’t happen without the software that the current App Store economy makes it nearly impossible to build and sustain.”

I absolutely love the “Your Verse” iPad ad that was released this week, and on the surface it appears that the current state of the App Store isn’t preventing amazing “post-PC” apps from being developed. But things are not always as they appear on the surface. It would be interesting for Apple to study various “post-PC” apps in the App Store (including ones featured in the “Your Verse” ad and featured on the App Store in recent months) to better understand the financial viability of creating and maintaing those apps. If the apps Apple brags about and features aren’t financially viable, we will inevitably see less of those apps being built over time.

As I’ve mentioned in previous emails, Apple can and does dramatically shape the App Store economy. Similar to how governments shape economies through tax law and other policies, Apple shapes the App Store economy through app review policies, App Store implementation details, editorial decisions, the App Store search algorithm, and in so many other subtle (and not so subtle) ways. I’d love to see Apple wield that power to shape the App Store in ways that will sustain and encourage meaningful development over the long-term and not let the current success of the App Store blind it to issues that are impacting the trajectory of the App Store.

david