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Apple, Google, and 3rd-Party Developers

Amid the Colorful colors and parallaxes at Monday’s WWDC keynote, tucked away in the lower-left, was an icon that struck terror into the hearts of literally thousands of developers: a tiny flashlight. Just like that, every flashlight app in the App Store is obviated. Yes, yes: flashlight apps are hardly feats of creative or technically masterful design and engineering, but their overnight demise at the expense of Apple’s new Control Center is indicative of a wider trend toward consolidation of all mobile services on both iOS and Android under the umbrellas of Apple and Google, respectively.

This year’s I/O and WWDC shared an alarming affinity for boxing-out 3rd-party apps and developers. Why rely on a small shop to provide an essential or popular service (or one that is both essential and popular) for your platform, when you (meaning Apple or Google) can instead bring said service natively into your own ballooning ecosystem? I originally wrote about Google’s own forays into all sorts of categories (note taking, streaming music, true OTT text + video) and how it could threaten stock Android’s flexibility and neutrality. Good platforms don’t announce themselves or get in the way of the services running on them. That statement explains why Facebook Home is an abject failure so far and why flexible Android and relatively bare-bones iOS have been raging successes by contrast.

My original fear had been that Google would turn Android into one giant Google+ net, but post-WWDC, I think that this trend toward 1st-party consolidation is not just a uniquely Google power play, but instead a sign of the sudden, awkward maturity of mobile computing. iOS pre-iCloud, and Android pre-ICS, were platforms that lacked numerous services that we now struggle to remember doing without, ranging from file management and transfer to streaming music to time-shifted reading. 3rd-party alternatives like Dropbox (for file management), Pandora and to a lesser extent Spotify (for streaming music), and Instapaper and Pocket were just some of the most high-profile examples of apps that filled critical voids.

Mobile computing was young and many apps that had flourished on the desktop had not yet made their ways over to iOS and Android. For example, Adobe’s incredible slowness in porting over Reader (to say nothing of the still-missing Acrobat) allowed a whole crop of PDF annotation apps to crop-up; one of them was until very recently among the highest-grossing iPad apps of all time. And of course, Microsoft’s ongoing refusal to do iOS or Android ports of Office has resulted in millions of users becoming acquainted with iWork or with the Google-owned QuickOffice.

Marco Arment is right to say that it’s both a rare and exciting opportunity when an OS or platform gets an overhaul, since the established players have to scramble to keep up with a new paradigm, which opens the doors for underdogs to make inroads. Just as Adobe and Microsoft were weakened by the advent of iOS in particular, it’s certain that many of the App Store’s current category leaders are going to be shaken up by iOS 7’s new APIs and aesthetic. The Play Store has also undergone radical change over the past two years, as Android has become more and more Google-like; its current top-grossing app, SwiftKey, may come under siege from Google’s own newly released gesture keyboard.

And so developers not only have the golden opportunity that Arment alludes to, but also a struggle against the very makers of the platforms they’re working on. The maturity of mobile computing means that Apple and Google are more comfortable and more ambitious in adding their own services to the platform to enrich users’ experiences. Sometimes, these growing ambitions squeeze-out 3rd-party apps. At WWDC alone, Apple took aim at some of the following apps:

  • Bump – AirDrop for iOS makes large file transfer much easier than before
  • Instagram – the iOS Camera now has filters and easier sharing
  • Skype – FaceTime audio is yet another nail in this app’s coffin on mobile
  • Pandora – streaming radio is now baked right into iTunes
  • Instapaper/Pocket – Safari’s Reading List just keeps getting better
  • Kindle and any ePub/PDF annotation app – iBooks for Mac should allow for a continuous reading client (via iCloud) that can also annotate documents

Likewise, at I/O (and in the weeks before and after(, Google took on:

  • Spotify – Google Play Music All Access is nearly a clone of this service
  • WhatsApp, Skype, and any other OTT messegner – Google+ Hangouts aims to not only replace Google Talk, but make it into a catch-all answer to OTT messengers
  • SwiftKey and Swype – Google Keyboard is now a downloadable, free gesture keyboard, making life tougher on these paid 3rd-party alternatives
  • PDF and ePub readers – the underrated Google Play Books can now read and markup both PDFs and ePubs.
  • Evernote – boxed-out by Google Keep

You can see the awkward position that both companies’ ambitions have put some developers in. Granted, some of the devs that they’re challenging are well-off and funded (like Spotify and Microsoft-owned Skype), but others are not.

This scenario seems to be the double-edged sword of any major OS overhaul: by updating and refreshing their platforms, Apple and Google provide opportunities for new developers to break thru, but only if those developers can build something that ultimately creates a type of value that a 1st-party alternative cannot. Good examples of this include 3rd-party iOS podcasting apps, which are under no threat from Apple’s baked-in solution, and any 3rd-party news, weather, or RSS app on Android, which need not lose any sleep worrying about Google’s lackluster weather app or the geeks-only Google Currents aggregator.

There’s still plenty of space in which 3rd-party developers can shine. But they have to be wary of how the platforms that serve them are growing up and becoming more distinctive, more coherent, and more controlled brands and instruments.

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