Tuesday, December 18, 2012

What's your usage of free vs. paid apps?

When I read reviews of free apps in tech publications, they often have a line to the effect, "There is paid advertising which is/is not intrusive. I would gladly pay a dollar to turn the ads off".

There is a line of thought that subscriber payment can support the app developer and also provides an alternate business model to ad-funded apps. It is an extension of the ad-free model of paid television - subscribe to the channel and we will turn off the ads.

In practice though, it does not work  that way for consumers, or for businesses. 

I presume that in the course of a customer life cycle, showing ads will earn more revenue than the $1 or 2 that I pay one time to remove  them. The scale increases exponentially when we talk of hugely popular free  apps with  millions of downloads. 

Also, strangely, I do not mind it if mobile apps display ads. I do not find them obtrusive, I don't worry about how much data they consume and I would not find it a value proposition to pay purely to turn them off. 

This time-scaled infographic of the iOS App Store published by Appsfire and featured on TUAW reveals that app developers and consumers seem to share this view. The report by Appsfire reveals that the percentage of paid apps has shrunk from 74% in 2008 to 34% in 2012. Simultaneously, as the number of apps has increased, gaining visibility and traction has become much more of a challenge. Few apps make it to the top ranks and the majority never gain traction, revealing that app discovery, let alone trial, is a huge problem for apps today.

There are several ways to subsidise apps - free trial of a basic version with paid upgrade for more features and functionality (the freemium model), in-app purchases, and of course, ads. 

I did a check of my app downloads on my iPad and Android phone and I discovered the following trend:

1. Currently, I have 180 apps across my phone and iPad of which 20 are paid apps - roughly 11%.
2. The first 50 or so apps on both devices were purely free ones as I was not prepared to experiment with paid apps initially. Thus in the first 6 months, I did not spend on any free apps.
3. The first apps I bought  were games (all of these were upgrades from a free to a paid version like Angry Birds Seasons HD, Shanghai, Cut The Rope and Rush Hour), demonstrating that the freemium model certainly worked for me where games were concerned. In all these cases, there was also a desire to support the developer because these games gave me a lot of enjoyment.
4. The most expensive apps I spent on were 'productivity/ tools' - like Quick Office, a Feed Reader, ROM tools etc.. Interestingly, I bought most of these based on reviews and 'sight blind' (without a free trial) and ratings/user recommendations played a very important role. In fact, in many cases, I was using a free solution which was not satisfactory and instead of upgrading to a paid solution from the same developer I went straight to a new, paid app. It seems that my purchase process for these was similar to that for gadgets - read, compare and select the best one based on my need. I did not purchase impulsively and it took me time to reach a stage where I was ready to buy expensive apps, although 'expensive' is a relative term - at most, these were a couple of dollars more than the games.  But it does present an interesting cycle of evolution - from when I started using my mobile devices as a toy - till when they became an integral and important tool. 

Sources : TUAWAppsfire blog

Monday, December 10, 2012

The war of the social networks has begun!

If you are a user of Twitter and Instagram, you must have noticed the controversial clash between the two companies which has been widely reported in the media, and escalated after Instagram rejected a buy-out bid from Twitter in favor of being acquired by Facebook. The latest episode involved Instagram revoking the ability of users to see photos in their Twitter Stream, and Twitter retaliating by launching their own  photo filters which compete directly with the photo sharing apps' functionality.

Twitter has been in the news for other hard hitting decisions notably increasing restrictions placed on developers of third party Twitter applications like Tweet Deck and Twitterific. Twitter's new policies appear to be directed towards creating and owning the unique user experience of Twitter rather than leaving it to competition. Instagram has made a similar move with the launch of web profiles, which make pictures taken with the app publicly viewable and searchable. 

I am not a heavy Instagram user so these changes do not affect me much. What did affect me was Twitter's decision in June to disable the automatic posting of tweets to a LinkedIn profile. I used twitter as a means to cross-post news updates to all my social networks, and this would mean an additional step of posting to LinkedIn separately, which I did not want. Strangely, I can still cross-post my tweets to Facebook. Maybe I should expect the plug to be pulled on that as well.

Twitter is not the only one trying to own the user experience. Today I received a mail from LinkedIn informing me that they are activating a new and improved profile. That's good, but the mail also added:

Now there are more ways than ever to tell your professional story on LinkedIn, and we're excited for you to try them out. As we roll out these changes, we'll also be streamlining our app offerings, so the following LinkedIn apps will no longer be supported on the homepage or profile as of December 11:

  • Box.net Files

  • Blog Link
Dig into the changes on LinkedIn and they are much deeper, and implemented over time. You can no longer link most RSS Feeds directly to groups, profile or company pages and need to post a status update instead. Also LinkedIn is encouraging people to use their new rich media content to showcase profiles (presentations, videos etc.)

The business thinking behind these decisions is very simple
1. By getting people to create content specifically for the network, and sign in to post 
    manually, we are getting them to spend more time on the site. Right now, they have no real 
    incentive to log in or spend time when they can just push content from third party apps.
2. When people spend more time on the site creating content and browsing, they also reveal a 
    little more about themselves and this can go a long way to build our understanding of our user
    base. This also improves the monetisation of the users.
3. People may complain a little at least initially about these changes, and say they make life   
    worse, but it's the nature of people to resist all change. When we create great native apps 
    and allow only a handful of tightly integrated third pary apps, we will deliver a fantastic user 
    experience that they will love. Go back to point 1 and 2.

And the bottomline : if we do not create and own the user experience, we will never own the users the way Facebook does. 

As a user, what do I think? I think my time spent on networking sites is going to double. Today it's just a matter of sharing content without leaving the app or website I am currently accessing. Tomorrow, I will be signing into 3x sites to individually post updates, status messages etc. Extra clicks, page views, time spent. It's good till I see a utility and value in doing this. Otherwise, there will be a shakeout in my usage habits. I will stop visiting a few sites, I will stop updating regularly. And everyone will make this prioritisation depending on where their interests and contact bases lie. Photo enthusiasts will migrate to Instagram. Businesses who rely on professional networking sites will spend more effort and resource on LinkedIn. We will continue to Facebook, because we have to, don't you know.

There will be a shakeout, a shifting of audience bases and a segmentation of the networking markets. Because our time resource is limited and we do need to (ocassionally) work.

The war of the social networks has begun in earnest. Twitter vs. Facebook vs. Instagram vs. Pinterest vs. LinkedIn vs. Google + vs. many others. Where does your interest lie?

Why Android Jellybean has overtaken iOS

Over the weekend, I have been using Jellybean 4.2.1, the newest Android OS update from Google, on my Galaxy Nexus. I have been using iOS 6 on my iPad since a month as well. After comparing the latest operating systems from Apple and Google, I have to give it to Google - in a remarkably short time span, Android has surpassed iOS in terms of features, user experience and sheer future potential. It is clearly the most dynamic operating system in the market now, and competition will have its work cut out to deliver something more compelling.

Here are my reasons why Android has pulled ahead of iOS with this update

1. Google Now - the future lies in telling you what you need, before you search for it

Google Now represents a huge breakthrough in search interface and technology innovation. Search till now has been a passive  tool - as a user, you have to type a search query - and the search engine uses algorithms, a knowledge of your profile, and an understanding of what other users searched for (and wanted to search for) to deliver what it thinks are the best results. 

With Google Now, search moves from passive to active, and truly predictive. The cards used by  the service proactively deliver the information that you will need. For instance, my search cards give me an update on traffic and estimated time to reach work based on Google Maps data, the birthdays of my social network contacts on Google +, and reviews of nearby restaurants. Cards change interactively depending on the area - when I am near a bus stand, they show me bus timings and routes. Google Now can even be set to search my email and send me flight reminder notifications. As Google Now with the cards system is set to migrate to the desktop, the predictions are going to get better. And it offers a superb convenience to users. Every click and swipe saved on the phone, is a precious resource of time and energy saved for the user. If I can access all the information I need through search cards instead of opening individual apps or typing queries, I regard it as a big convenience.

Both the concept and the implementation are superb and offer immense business opportunity for Google and advertisers. I can see a future for location based paid search opportunities to list restaurant and retail deals, nearby events, empty seats in movie halls - the opportunities are endless and real time.

Here Google's edge over Apple lies in their search expertise, honed over years, and the tight integration with Google Maps which makes real time location based prediction possible. 

2. Voice driven operation, with local accent/dialect recognition

Apple's Siri has proven to be huge hit with customers, providing useful and relevant answers to queries including some (un)intentionally  funny ones. A voice assistant powered by Artificial Intelligence, offers great and often humorous companionship and manages your phone, life and appointments, even opening apps at your command - what's not to like?

Sadly, Siri does not like my voice. I spent nearly 15 minutes  with a friend's phone trying to get some responses to my questions but received no response. Accents in a country like India can differ hugely, and even with the best wannabe American drawl I could put on, I got nothing. Yes, my English is heavily Indian accented.

I do know that language recognition software needs a training period to learn and understand your speech, and I was expecting a frustrating time with Google's voice SMS dictation and voice search. To my surprise, there was no learning curve at all. I have to speak close to the microphone and a little slower than usual, but from Hour Zero, I was able to dictate my SMS and voice commands were recognised with almost no errors. Seriously impressive stuff.

With giant user bases in the maturing mobile markets including India, Google clearly has a stake in getting voice recognition right. The exciting thing for me about voice assistance on Google, is that it is meant for everyone who buys an Android smartphone running JellyBean. As the user database expands and scales up rapidly, Google will be able to refine the services better. I do feel bad that Apple gives Siri access only to people who buy the  iPhone 4S/ third generation iPad and above. I understand that older hardware like my iPad 2 can support Siri, but Apple has taken a business decision to restrict their flagship service to flagship devices. Frankly, it's not enough of an impetus to make me upgrade to a newer device, but it's a good enough reason to feel resentful. And when I get a similar feature, gratis, as an Android update, it's a delighter. 'Nuff said.

3. Better cross platform integration of Google products

Apple has always offered a tight integration of products and services within the Apple ecosystem. If you use an iPhone, MacBook and iPod, you will experience this first hand. But if you own a standalone Apple product in conjunction with a Windows PC and an Android phone, as I do, you will soon run into some of the headaches of integration. Recently, I evaluated the purchase of Keynote for my iPad and had to go in favor of Quick Office because Keynote will only sync to iCloud, while Quick Office supports Google Docs, Box and Dropbox. iCloud is not a natural or first choice for a Windows PC or an Android phone while the other cloud solutions are device and platform agnostic. 

Google has an advantage in being a  web and browser based (and until recently, primarily desktop-based) ecosystem. Google products and services work on a Linux distro, work on a Win PC and on a Mac, and on almost any web enabled phone.

If you use GMail, YouTube, Google Docs, GTalk and Chrome - and you probably do - you will just experience how much better they integrate into a seamless and smooth user experience on Android. I first began to appreciate this when Google launched Chrome with ICS Android 4.0 and the integration just gets better. A single sign-in to Google configures all accounts automatically. I can pick up reading on my phone, where I left  off on my iPad, thanks to Chrome's device sync. The Android Gmail client is truly superior to Apple's mail solution, and as our business uses Google Apps, it's yet another good reason to choose Android.

With JellyBean introducing multiple profiles sign in (similar to user login on Windows and currently only available on tablets), you can even have separate home screens for different users. Useful if you have kids and want to restrict their access only to certain items, or if multiple family members share a tablet and want to maintain their separate organisation of apps and desktop. 

iOS6 has its strengths - the biggest one's being its stability, intuitiveness and the fact that it 'just works beautifully' - but they may not be differentiators for long. Android is catching up rapidly in all these departments and emerging as a smooth, mature and polished operating system. Right now, I would use one word to describe it - exciting. And in the world of tech, that's always a good thing.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Wearable tech and the future of health

Last week, I started using the Fitbit wireless activity tracker. Of course, fitness and activity monitors have been around for years - the Nike FuelBand, Jawbone Up and Fitbit are just some of the products that come to mind. Till today, all the activity trackers are basically pedometers/altimeters, with some (like Fitbit) offering an additional functionality of tracking sleep, linking with inputs from other mobile apps etc. 

The real differentiation apart from design and looks comes from the software interface and the way it presents statistics and graphs of your activity level to help you understand and modify your lifestyle to be more active. For example Nike Fuel is designed to share data and competitively motivate each other to perform better. Fitbit is more oriented to people who like to monitor their own stats personally

I really like the Fitbit for a simple reason - as a researcher, I believe that data empowers us to change. At work, I deal on a regular basis with customer data and statistics. Understanding and analysing these is my job and when I do it well, it results in useful decisions and actions that impact clients' businesses for the better.

Why shouldn't the same principle apply for my personal data, and transformation in my own life and routine? 

Today technology makes monitoring and collection of data easier than ever before. All smartphones are equipped with basic GPS sensors which allow a plot of distance and altitude. Some have advanced sensors like barometers and altimeters which can be deployed for greater data richness. Mobile broadband and app interfaces make it easy to enter, sync and present real time data to users. At the backend, enterprises are developing increasingly sophisticated tools for processing "Big Data" for customer delight. And there is a possibility that customers are willing to pay for such data. One of the simplest and most effective tools offered in Fitbit premium ($49.99 annually) is the ability to benchmark your activity and fitness levels against your peers in a granular way - here is a sample graph;

I have learnt a lot about myself from Fitbit - for example, that I walk much more than I realise, that I eat much less than I blame myself for (!) and that just a small and conscious increase in activity level can make me way fitter than I am. It's not that I don't know these things in theory, but seeing them backed by data makes  them a lot more convincing and real. 

And the future of wearable tech for health just got a lot more exciting. Just recently, Basis has launched a sophisticated activity monitor using cutting edge sensors like an optical BP monitor,  a three axis accelerometer, a perspiration monitor which monitors change in sweat levels from different activities and a skin temperature sensor. Put together, this can take data collection to another level, using a physiological understanding of your body to recommend incremental and long term changes in habits that will benefit health.

If you were planning to spring for a Nike FuelBand, I advise you to consider the Basis at a similar price range of $199. In fact, reading about Basis made me spring for a Fitbit, because while I cannot really afford to spend that amount right now, apart from from the fact it does not ship to India yet, I still wanted a small piece of the action.

Those of us who spend thousands of rupees annually on gym memberships that we don't use (I am guilty) can probably benefit from changing the routine that we already follow rather than trying to introduce a new routine eg. balancing a one hour workout with a demanding job. It's easier to just take the stairs at work everyday AND feel good when you see that it's made a big difference. Senior citizens, heart patients and diabetics who cannot undertake strenuous exercise can get a companion through a device which gently encourages them to be active - and achieves better results than the doctor's exhortation during monthly visits to lose some weight.

Educating and motivating people to be healthy can be the biggest trend in wearable tech this decade.