Contextual apps arrived at Techcrunch Disrupt. It’s not just Google Now that shows you information about your next meeting, either. I saw a bunch of cool apps that are using context and I kept hearing that iOS is behind.
Maluuba isn’t the only company that has told me that iOS is behind. Glympse‘s CEO, Bryan Trussel, told me his team develops its contextual mapping app on Android first, then moves it to iPhone.
Why is this?
A few reasons:
1. Android lets developers have access to the dialer so that app developers can watch who calls you and who you call.
2. Android lets developers look at the wifi and bluetooth radios on the phone so app developers can build better systems to track where you are, who you are near, and whether you are near things like your car.
3. Android lets developers ship and test without waiting up to three weeks to have their apps approved.
That said, there’s a counter point of view, which you’ll hear in my interview with Path’s CEO, Dave Morin (he is working on adding more contextual features to his app, which is a personal journal that’s quite popular).
What is this pro-iPhone point of view? Well, Path ships on both iPhone and Android. If you look at the market share numbers you know that for every iPhone sold Android sells about three devices. So, Path should be wildly more popular on Android than it is on iPhone. It’s not. In fact only about 30% of its customers are on Android. The rest are using iPhones. You might explain this away by some other factor but I’ve heard this from many many developers, including Starbucks and eBay. iPhone users use more apps. The ecosystem of apps is better on iOS. The profitability of app developers is better on iOS than on Android. On and on.
The dirty little secret is that users aren’t the same. My son’s friend showed me why. iOS users tend to be ones that really care about being online all the time. They also tend to be willing to pay for that. You might say they are richer users, which is partially true. My son’s friend shows me that she doesn’t have an unlimited data plan so she turns off her data on her phone and that she isn’t very app centric because she can’t afford the high availability data plans. She isn’t as good a user for app developers as, say, my son is, who keeps his phone’s data online all the time thanks to Verizon’s flat rate pricing on the iPhone.
At Techcrunch Disrupt I interviewed about 30 companies over three days. Most of them showed me that their apps are being developed on iOS first and they back up Dave Morin’s reasons why they go iOS first.
Some other things I saw at Techcrunch Disrupt, or didn’t see.
1. It’s clearly an Android vs. iOS world. It was extremely rare to see a Windows Phone, a RIM device, or anything that wasn’t running Android or iOS. There are even toys coming out that run iOS.
2. Nearly every developer is paying attention to the Age of Context and looking to build personalized features into their mobile apps.
3. Lots of people came up to me showing me apps on iPhones but they admit that they are really building prototypes of things that will ship on Google’s Project Glass next year. I saw two face detection companies, a slew of Siri competitors, and more that would be awesome on the Project Glass wearable computers that Google is working on.
4. While the new iPhone wasn’t all that exciting nearly everyone I asked admitted they were going to buy one. Even the Android fanboys said they are going to buy one for development reasons. I did meet a few people who hate Apple and still won’t buy one, but they were a rarity on the floor of Techcrunch Disrupt.
5. Most people aren’t paying attention to what’s happening in the contextual world, even though Qualcomm’s Gimbal team was one of the sponsors.
6. There are a LOT of concerns about two things amongst developers: 1. the freaky line. 2. Battery life. The freaky line is a concern because these technologies basically learn, and stalk, you. Already some of the apps, like Alohar’s Placeme, knows what gas stations you like, whether or not you attend church or strip clubs, and what routes you take to work. That freaks people out. The battery life is an issue because any of these developers who needs to turn on the GPS sensors in the phone increases the power consumption of the phone. Highlight is a good example of this. Turn it on and you’ll get about 20% fewer minutes out of your battery. For many that’s a killer.
When I was talking to Maluuba’s developers I noted that we’re in the Apple I days of contextual apps. The apps are ugly, don’t do much, and take too much battery life for the utility they provide. The team agreed and said to watch as user experiences with these apps get better and devices build in better software and hardware that won’t hit the battery as much. For instance, developers are already learning to be smarter about figuring out you’ve moved without turning on GPS.
Early adopters and developers are going to want to get Android devices to play around with this new contextual world. As Google’s Project Glass comes out next year the difference in ecosystems between iOS and Android will become more stark. Even Dave Morin admitted that his team will use Android more as R&D and as a proving ground for new, contextual features.
Is this dangerous for Apple?
I don’t think it is. Apple, at its best, isn’t a technology leader. Did anyone really use the Newton? No. The iPad, though, was very popular. Why? It took what the industry had been working on for a decade and simplified it.
So, watch for Apple to learn what works in terms of context and watch for Apple to be a fast follower that will bring a mass market product that my dad will use. For now my dad doesn’t care about context and I don’t have any reason to bring him the latest apps. They are too geeky, use too much power for what they deliver, and aren’t reliable enough. I can see that changing big time over the next two years, though, which is why Shel Israel and I are working on a book about the contextual age. It’s clear that we’re moving into a new age, it just will take a while to get out of the Apple I stage, where only a few hundred geeks are playing with it, to the Apple II stage where the mass market starts to show up.
Ignore it at your peril, though. It is the new mobile battlefield.