The Most Important Push Notification Metric

Yes, Push Notifications are a viable retention tactic. And app developers have prudently started to take all the right measures to optimize flows to get users to opt in to push notifications. But once that happens, are we as app developers doing right by the user to ensure that we are using this sacred push notification channel optimally? It doesn’t sound like it — in fact, we might be abusing the channel, and not realizing the consequences of the abuse.

I’ve seen this pattern way too often now:

  1. Build Web app
  2. Send Emails
  3. Build iOS App
  4. For every email we send, send a Push Notification

In most cases, this pattern is just unacceptable and it can overwhelm your users to the point of no return.

For example, this is Pinterest’s Push Notification Settings page:

This is Pinterest’s email settings page:


Emails and Push Notifications are fundamentally different

Just to spell this out…

Although 50-65%of all emails now get opened on mobile devices, email is still an asynchronous form of communication. Emails can be ignored.

Pushes are invasive and your phone is impossible to ignore (I’d love for everyone to heed Fred Wilson’s advice). There is no “unsubscribe all” option for pushes like there is in the footer of most bulk emails. In fact, it is much easier for users are to just delete your app rather than to find your settings page and turn off push notifications (or to turn off notifications for your app globally from Settings.app).

Sure, sending more pushes could mean you see an increase in retention from some of your users. But can you prove that you are not losing more users by sending (more) pushes?


Churn — the most important thing about Push Notifications you’re probably not measuring

It’s important that your app is instrumented correctly to measure and track all the right things before diving in.

  1. First, track repeat usage behavior — Intercom has a great writeup onMeasuring Retention (looks like Google Analytics is testing cohort retention capabilities too)
  2. Log when a push token is created for a user
  3. Log when push tokens are no longer valid (make sure you use “Soft” Deletion — more on Stackoverflow)[1]
  4. Attribute Pushes — sending parameters with your pushes so that when a user swipes through, your app can make sense of which specific push the user swiped on (this warrants a whole other post)

At the very least, you should have a device tokens table that looks something like this:

  • token,
  • user_id,
  • created_at,
  • deleted_at

Table 1 — An example device token table

Now here’s where tracking #2 & #3 from above come in handy. You should be able to write queries that tell you when cohorts of push tokens are “churning”:

Table 2 — Push Token Attrition

Push tokens can most likely be invalid if a user has deleted your app or if the user has turned off push notifications for your app[1]. Either way, you are unable to send pushes to that user any longer.

While retention is the metric we most commonly look at — the glass half full metric — it is just as important that we look to see if the pushes we’re sending are causing users to churn out. In the example in table 2, 10 tokens were no longer valid after day 1. A total of 20 tokens were no longer valid after day 3, which means 20% of the users who had signed up and opted for push notifications are no longer reachable. What do you think that is doing to your retention?


My $0.02

  1. “Transactional” Pushes Only: Yes, Gilt sends pushes at 9am. And so does Lumosity. That doesn’t make it ok for you to do it if a user has just blanket consented to accepting push notifications from your app. For example most commerce companies, send out mass marketing emails (“daily sales”) and transactional emails (“your item has shipped”). Once the user has opted in, you could automatically opt your user in for the equivalent of just the transactional emails, but make sure to either prompt the user user to opt-in for daily marketing pushes or explicitly point out that the user has been opted in for daily marketing pushes.
  2. Volume: If the user does opt-in for a high volume of pushes, ease them in — don’t flood them from day 1, and most importantly if you find that a user is not swiping through on your pushes after a while, consider turning the volume back down or shutting them off altogether.
  3. AB Test your pushes: You should be able to test timing and content of your pushes. Test what works for your users before rolling it out on a broad scale.
  4. Crawl, Walk, Run: (This may sound a little counterintuitive to 3, but) If you’re a smallish startup trying to figure it all out, don’t go build the most exhaustive personalized push notification system in the world. Remember that your users have made it through some very complicated funnels to get to this point — found your app, tapped on the “get” on the AppStore, typed in their password or TouchId, installed it, launched it, signed up, opted-in and they like what they see. Keep them engaged but you don’t have to go overboard. Start with the basics, figure out how to optimize what you’ve started with before you decide that what you have built is no longer sufficient. When in doubt, read this PG article: Do Things That Don’t Scale.

The question you should be asking yourself as a developer sending pushes is, how would I feel if I got this push and what if it were delivered to me as a text message instead of a push?

@ai

[1] — this can be conflated by factors such as an OS update, or if a user resets his or her device

Thanks @danielpearson & @drinkzima for reading drafts of this.

On to the next one…

I first met Manik in 2012 at a (now defunct) coffee shop in San Francisco. Shortly after I’d met him, I tweeted this:

And shortly after that, he offered me a job to work on product at his startup, Threadflip. Product isn’t the only thing I worked on while I was here – I’ve hacked, I’ve hustled, I’ve moved furniture around, I’ve built business models, I’ve helped photograph women’s apparel, I even stepped in as (peacetime) CEO while Manik was out on paternity leave for a tad. Fast forward 2.5 years, Threadflip is on a phenomenal path to success. I feel really good about what we’ve built here – an amazing and talented crew, a great product and a solid brand.

I’ve done some really really weird things in my life (my post here on hustling). When I think about what I want to continue doing with my life, I look for opportunities where I can draw on my past experiences but also ones where I can learn. Things that make me uncomfortable, get me really excited. After a lot of thought over the holidays, and as tough as this decision was, I’ve decided to move on from Threadflip from my current full-time role to an advisory role. The decision was really tough because of how close I’ve gotten to everyone I work with there and because of the fact that Manik has treated me like a cofounder from the day I joined the company – and so, it feels like we’ve all built this company together. It’s really tough to separate yourself from something you’ve invested some much into and this separation is something I know I’ll continue to grapple with.

I want to thank everyone who I’ve had the pleasure of working closely with as a part of the Product, Design & Engineering team at Threadflip: Adam, Alex, Anna, Ben, Daniel, Dejana, Harris, Jason, Joice, Kamil, Kevin K, Kevin L, Lauren, Raunak. Jeff, Meghan and Prateek have been the best co-conspirators management team to work alongside and learn from – I can’t think of a more holistic leadership team with such vast and varied experience. To Tod, Kent, and Josh for being such a supportive and progressive board team – their experience and advice have been paramount in helping us be so successful. And of course, a huge thanks to Manik for taking a chance on me when he did – none of us would be at Threadflip if it weren’t for him (or for Tea, his wife, for that matter!)

As for what’s next, my initial goal in my spare time will be to spend more time with my daughter, Ava. My reading list is plush.  But whatever I end up pursuing, it’ll be something that really pushes me to be uncomfortable.

“Many persons have a wrong idea of what constitutes true happiness. It is not attained through self-gratification but through fidelity to a worthy purpose.” – Helen Keller

@ai

14 days

DSC_6002

Three days after Ava was born, on April 9, 2013, we brought her home from the hospital. And exactly ten minutes after I helped my wife and Ava get settled in at home, I went in to work. At the time, I really felt like I had to go back in to work. I work at a fast paced startup, and I worried about the stigmas of being the only parent working at that startup.

Ava is 21 months now. My wife and I both work full time, so Ava is with a nanny (we share the nanny with another family). Our nanny spends about 9 hours with Ava on weekdays. And on those weekdays, I get to spend about 2 hours with Ava (1.5 hours in the morning and about a half hour in the evening). And Shreya, my wife, gets about 2.5 hours with Ava, maybe a bit more. On weekends, we spend 100% of her awake time with her.

Shreya and I have been running hard and non-stop ever since Ava was born. We’ve hardly taken any time for ourselves and so we decided to make plans for an elaborate winter holiday. Shreya and I felt like we haven’t had a chance to spend much time alone with each other, so with my parents also joining us on this vacation, we felt like it would be the perfect opportunity for Ava to get to know her grandparents and for Shreya and I to reconnect. So off we went to Cancun, giddy as ever to make the most out of our 2014 holidays…

When we got to Cancun, some odd but magical things happened. Ava took more time than expected to connect with her grandparents. Ava is not a shy kid, but the combination of a new environment and new people forced her into her shell. This meant that Shreya and I ended up spending more time with Ava than we ever had. The average of 2 hours a day that I was spending with her went up to around 9 hours a day. And the range of activities we indulged in wasn’t confined and limited by space or time like it is at home, it was a lot more expansive. Everything we did in Cancun, whether it was a simple lunch, or a beach day, or an afternoon in the pool, was centered around her. She tried different foods (for better or worse ;), she swam around in the pool, she played in the sand, ran around… it was paradise for her. Crazy amount of work for Shreya and I, but to hear the glee in Ava’s voice as she experienced ocean waves washing over feet for the first time was worth it. Or to hear her greet random strangers with a “hola” who would smile ear-ear when they see a 21 month old trying to engage with them. But beyond all of that, there is something else that we noticed — the 7 extra hours a day that Shreya and I were spending with Ava was helping her advance in other ways too.

Both Shreya and I occasionally joke about how we wish Ava reciprocated our love for her. Usually when we snuggle up to her, she pushes us away and makes a run for it. We know that some of this is normal. But after having spent these 2 weeks with her, we’ve noticed a drastic change in Ava’s emotional intelligence. She gives both my wife and I great big hugs, that she’s never given us before. We always thought Ava really enjoyed her alone time, but after these 2 weeks, it was so endearing to see her actually return all the attention. Ava suffered from very very very brief bouts of separation anxiety, but to actually hear her whine “Daddy Daddy” when I would momentarily disappear to go to the bathroom was something I thought I’d never hear. She was actually genuinely enjoying all the attention she was getting.

Ava’s comprehension is vast, but her vocabulary is limited. After spending these 2 weeks with us we noticed that Ava was starting to talk more —the number of words she now says has doubled. Whether it was telling us it was “cold cold” when she would get out of the pool, or trying to make a fish face when she saw fish, or looking at the “blue” ocean, or saying “mama, come” — these were all new words, expressions and experiences. Something about being in a vacation resort where everyone was inherently friendly, lots of people were also talking to Ava and vice-versa. Ava also blurted out some “hola”s every now and then, and even managed an “adios” once.

We live in a condo building in San Francisco — so no access to stairs per se. But in our clubroom downstairs, there are some stairs that leads to the gym. Ava and I, along with a neighbor and his darling son, some times play around there. Ava has always crawled up the stairs with no issues, but hesitates to climb them herself (without my help). Or climb down herself. But the lobby in the resort we were staying at had these stairs that Ava was thrilled about exploring. Mostly on her own, but with a little encouragement from me. And now after practicing on those stairs in the resort everyday for 2 weeks straight, Ava’s comfortable both climbing up and down stairs on her own.

Shreya had once asked me this question that I thought was bizarre — she asked, “when did you first start to really love Ava?” And I thought to myself, that’s nuts, I’ve loved her from the minute she was born. And it’s true — my natural instinct was to love her as a parent. I hadn’t fully experienced spending contiguous blocks of time with her, and loving that. At first, the thought of spending 7 more hours a day seemed daunting and like an unsurmountable challenge to me. But after the first few days, we all settled right in. The routine became routine. And I saw Ava developing in front of my eyes, emotionally and intellectually because of the collective effort all three of us were putting in. Most nights after we’d put Ava down for bed, Shreya and I would hand the baby monitor over to my parents and we would head downstairs for a walk or to grab a drink. And in those few moments, I’d reminisce about the day and think about how much I really love my daughter and how much I love spending time with her. And that the work we were putting in, hardly felt like work at all. That she is such an integral part of my life. And I’d look forward to what new things we could experiment with the next day. There are some moments in your life when you think to yourself, “holy shit, I’m in trouble” — that moment occurred to me at the tail end of our trip when I realized that till the next weekend, I will not be spending every waking moment with Ava.

Bing, Windows Phone and Solving Real Problems

I was talking to some friends yesterday, one of who had a Nokia Lumia. I asked him what he thought about the Lumia and his first words were, “you know, it’s not a bad phone. The Windows Phone OS is actually pretty good and is the best alternative to iOS right now (sorry, Android fans). But Windows Phones are not more popular for simple and (now) obvious reasons:

  1. Microsoft was late, too late in this case. Android ate their lunch and made it to market as the cheaper alternative to the iPhone and got the right partnerships in place. What Google did is what Microsoft would have done. I realize that there’s still an opportunity out there, internationally mostly, with feature phones. But the rate of adoption of Android should be scary enough to know that is going to be a dog fight. Besides, it’s a tough sell to OEMs when they have to pay Microsoft for Windows Phone licenses when Android is free (well, sorta).
  2. At the end of the day, no matter how good your OS or even your phone hardware, it comes down to how well a carrier can sell it. AT&T was in bed with the iPhone for a while, and reaped the benefits. Verizon and Microsoft have some bad blood because of the Kin. Sprint was in, but the first release of WP7 didn’t support CDMA. It didn’t matter though because AT&T and Verizon are the big dogs. A similar picture was painted internationally as well. On the other hand, we all know that the direct to consumer approach is not easy to pull off. It certainly didn’t go over very well for Google with the nexus one.
  3. Let’s just be honest – the name “Windows Phone” sucks. I understand Ballmer’s desire to brand everything Windows (to quote him: Windows is the air we breathe). But this was a different ball game – he knew it, we all knew it. And new branding could’ve actually helped. When people think Windows, they think of the clunky bloated OS that their PC ships with. People don’t want Windows (as they know it) on their phone. I was a big proponent of calling it the ZuneOS (ZOS?). But I’ll save that story for another post.

Microsoft has another headache with Bing. Bing’s has been flailing. Again, anyone who has used Bing (even non-softies) will tell you that it’s actually not a bad search engine. The similarity between Bing and Windows Phone from a consumer adoption standpoint is quite similar – these products are not good enough or differentiating enough to displace Google Search or Android. It’s time for Microsoft to stop focusing on just the competition and go back to basics – think about what problems consumers are facing, and solve those.

The interesting fact about the smartphone market is that we’ve always been “premium” customers. We pay a monthly subscription fee for using a carrier’s network. As a startuper/entrepreneur, I know that having a repeatable subscription business model (that applies to the world’s adult+teen population) is the holy grail of business success. To a lot of people, a smartphone is still considered a luxury good. My wife and I pay about $250 a month to AT&T for our two iPhones (maybe we can optimize our spend a bit). That’s affordable for us and we’re mostly happy with our service (my wife may tell you otherwise).

$0* for unlimited voice/data

I wonder how many more customers a carrier could acquire if the carrier provided the option for you to get their service for $0*. You get a phone for free and you commit to a contract for 12 months. Instead of paying $X/month (where X is typically >= 40), you get to sign up for the service for free, but, your usage of voice and data will be made up for by serving you ads. The ads will not be limited to just search related intents, but will be pervasive. You will get asynchronous notifications (push, SMS) that are geotargeted ads. There could be ‘tiles‘ that are just ad tiles and can’t be removed or moved. The ads would be hypertargeted thereby demanding higher CPMs since the carrier knows pretty much everything about you. When you call someone, instead of the typical ringtone, you, the caller, may hear an ad instead of the ringtone till the other party answers. The phone app screen could also show contextual ads while you are on a call, based on the type of conversations you are having. Sounds scary, I know, but hey, you paid $0 for this – just like you pay $0 to you use Google or Gmail. Sure, there may be issues where someone gets a phone and never uses it thereby costing Microsoft some $$. I think that number is probably going to be pretty small and negligible.

Panacea* for Microsoft?

If Microsoft were to pioneer this in to the OS, work out an ad rev share with the OEM instead of charging $ per Windows Phone OS license, and recruit a carrier like Sprint (that needs to differentiate) this could be huge. $0 is a hard price to beat and will definitely appeal to the mid-low end market. Advertisers are probably not going to flock to Bing initially if they don’t have traction, but Microsoft can throw money at that problem to pump life into the ecosystem. Bing wins, Windows Phone wins, consumer wins.

My hunch is that it would be ideal if Microsoft or Google or Apple could sell phones without the need to worry about carriers at all. Microsoft could easily do this if they had a wireless spectrum readily available and just use Skype as the de facto call app. But that is certainly not minimally viable.

What do you think - would you sign up for service with Sprint if they offered you a Windows Phone for free and charged you $0/month for unlimited voice and data, but served you with ads throughout?

@ai

PS: I’d left the Windows Phone team right about the time Windows Phone 7 launched. So I’m not privy to the details behind WP8+.

What is hustling?

A few weeks ago Aaron and I met with a potential investor – arguably one of the best investors in the technology space. For about 5 years I’ve had a crush on this investor and this firm, and I was giddy about meeting with them. As is normal, some time after the presentation this investor wanted to learn more about us as humans. Aaron went first, and told his story, which included a story from when he was in middle school about starting a student run store. I did mine – ex-product @ IGN, ex-Microsoft blah blah blah. I’ve learned to read body language fairly well and this investor’s body language in response to my story appeared, well, meh… He thought my story was meh… It wasn’t till the professional board-room style meeting was coming to a close and when we learned that we had some friends in common when we got to let our guard down and talk to each other more casually. That is when we got to learn about what this investor looks for in founders he’d like to fund.

It was simple: he wants to know how long you’ve been a hustler. He didn’t want to hear your resume. He even gave us an example, which is the quintessential example of what a hustler does. I’ve facepalmed plenty since that meeting in regret of not having told my stories, but I want to share them so you know what a hustler does.

Story #1 – Tennis “Racket”

When I was 12, I took to tennis in a huge way. I absolutely loved the game. I idolized Becker, Sampras and Agassi and I’d play with whoever and whenever I could. But much like any other sport, playing the same people over and over doesn’t challenge you as much. Mixing up your opponents makes you better. So I would seek out to enroll in tournaments and play at clubs where I could mix things up and learn and grow. Unfortunately where I grew up, the nearest best tennis courts were inside elite clubs which cost some serious $$$$ to play at. It was where some of the best tennis players in the country would play. My parents were practical people and they felt playing at this club was a privilege and not a necessity. As a 12 year old impatient boy, you reach in to your instincts to try and find a way to get what you want.

This club I really wanted to play at had two tennis courts that bordered a dead pedestrian street. The wall between those courts and the street was at best 10 feet high. Between 2-4pm everyday, a tennis instructor would teach a bunch of students with his back against this wall. Invariably, between 20-30 balls would make their way over this low wall and on to the street. These were pretty bad ass tennis balls (I can’t remember what brand now), but I remember the club used to charge a mighty premium to buy these inside the club. So between 2-4pm, I’d hang outside this club against this wall and collect these overpriced tennis balls. The next day I’d sell the tennis balls that were in the best shape to people who were entering the club for a special low “street price” (something like 300 fils per ball or 2 cans of 3 balls each for 1.5 dinars, whereas the club was selling it for something north of 2 dinars for a single can of 3 balls). I made enough over a week for a single visitor pass to the club. That got me about 4-6 hours of playing time there per week.

Story # 2 – Book club

Our school library SUCKED. It had the most pathetic and antiquated collection of books I’d ever seen. Our librarian was a super friendly guy though and he often claimed that the books the school wanted to buy were too expensive and that the school didn’t stand to gain monetarily by investing in our library. I was never a big reader myself, but my friends were.

At the time, my parents and I flew a lot. We’d vacation somewhere at least once a month and we made our way over to India quite a bit. I used this opportunity to ask my parents for some extra cash to buy a few extra books. My parents would never decline such a request.

I did two things with these books: I sold some to our librarian for what was a much cheaper price than what the school was getting them for, but I was turning a profit on them. But creating a book club/marketplace with these books seemed was a sustainable business. Moreover, some kids had books they were willing to share. And this fed the needs of some other kids wanted books to read that they could never find in our library. And so my friend and I created a “marketplace” – much like a library, we charged our friends a flat fee of 500 fils a month to become members of our club to rent out up to 5 books a month for 1 week each. If one of your books were to get rented out, you’d get 100 fils off (up to 5 books a month). I was in 6th grade, and this was an amazing side business. Eventually with a non-computerized system to manage who had what, this got out of hand and out of control (I think I still owe some kids money and/or books). But it was an awesome learning experience…

It’s debatable whether someone is a “born entrepreneur” or not. What isn’t is debatable however is what you’ve done all your life. How much you’ve hustled all your life. That is your story. That also is what can make you invaluable as a startup founder. I believe there’s a reason that the Y Combinator application asks you these two questions:

  • Please tell us in one or two sentences about the most impressive thing other than this startup that each founder has built or achieved.
  • Please tell us about the time you most successfully hacked some (non-computer) system to your advantage.
I’m not saying I have the perfect answers for these questions, but clearly (with the second question) the Y Combinator team is looking for a “hustler”.

I’ve been hustling at OnSports for a few months now. What hustling forces you to learn is that the word ‘no’ simply means you are going to find another way to get a ‘yes’.

Here are some other posts that talk about “hustlers” that you will find helpful:

Hustle on, homies,

Passion-Market fit meets Point of Obsession

There are a few things that kids grow up being obsessed about – video games and sports are two such things. I grew up a sports fanatic, not so much a video gamer. Sports didn’t run in the household – neither my parents nor my sister are into it. Just me. Somehow both playing and watching sports has proven to be my favorite pass time my entire life. I grew up mostly watching the NFL, Tennis, Cricket, Basketball and some English Premier League. I played Basketball, Ping Pong (Table Tennis), Tennis and Cricket in school. I was so obsessed with Basketball, I was one of those kids who had a giant posted of Jordan in my room and I now subconsciously stick my tongue out on my way to a layup.

Although I never graduated beyond amateur high school sports leagues, my passion for sports never dwindled. When I got to Purdue, my first job on campus was as a lab assistant for the Purdue Computing Center (then known as PUCC). Although many fellow lab assistants warned me against it, I ended up signing up to be the LA over at Purdue’s Intercollegiate Athletic Facility because I wanted to be as close to the sports action as possible (the IAF is also where I first met  a 6’0″ freshman named Drew Brees who needed some help with his website and said he might be starting at QB the next year). Sports was always close to my heart.

A few years ago, I thought that it’d be awesome if I could spend all my time working on sports. Or technology in sports, because I am a technologist geek by trade, and I love technology. There are several deficiencies with the existing sports media market that have bothered me as a forever as a sports fan (I won’t go into details here). The idea of wanting to do something in this space started to brew in my head.

And then back in February, Fred Wilson wrote this:

- Hunches come from being a power user of the products in your category and from having a long standing obsession about the problem you are solving.

- Domain expertise to the point of obsession is highly correlated with the most successful entrepeneurs in our portfolio. …

The seed had already been planted in my head – I saw a problem, and this problem needed a solution. Then Naval Ravikant wrote this about passion-market fit:

So the only way you’re likely to find product-market fit is if you’re almost irrationally obsessed with the market and if you’ve been working on it for a long time. Where the journey is the reward. Then, you’re likely to have unique insights (in the details) and consistent execution, through thick and thin, to find fit. Often, the best companies are ones where the product is an extension of the founder’s personality, which shouldn’t be a big surprise, since everyone is passionate about themselves.

I joined IGN last year because I saw a huge opportunity and a very nice product-market fit. But my passion for the sports industry far outweighs my passion for the video game industry. And so I’m joining Aaron Krane and the team at Hitpost, makers of the popular Sports+ app, as CTO. I get to work on disrupting the sports media industry for a living. I couldn’t possibly ask for anything more.

Thanks to all my friends at IGN who’ve helped me get better as a product manager and as a human. And special thanks to Andy McLoughlin for introducing me to Aaron.

Onward and upward,

@ai

Rethinking Mobile First

[Update: Bing is working on solving this very issue with their “auto app discovery” feature”. Read about it here: http://www.bing.com/community/site_blogs/b/search/archive/2011/06/09/iphone-mobile-app-discovery-with-bing.aspx]

I’m on my way back from Amsterdam where I was at the Mobilism conference. The opening talk was by done by LukeW on “Mobile First”. If you haven’t heard Luke speak or you haven’t seen his slides, I strongly encourage you to do so. Luke presents the state of the mobile industry and trends in a very real here-and-now sorta way. His content is very complimentary to Mary Meeker’s very forward looking slides.

I know that the mobile industry is buzzing. This industry is exploding really fast and obviously the growth rate of mobile devices is tremendous. But I think it’s too soon to be saying that all developers out there who are hatching an idea should think of doing mobile, or specifically, a mobile app only first.

There is a huge issue with AppStores today – discoverability. Let’s look at usage patterns on the desktop – the notion of searching for something (Googling for something) is very commonplace. You can’t find something – Google it. A lot of times the struggle is with phrasing your query correctly so that Google knows what set of results to give you, not necessarily that Google doesn’t know content out there exists on the web. But for the most part, it’s not so bad. And Google knows what content to serve you because they’ve done their jobs in indexing the world wide web. Easy. But you can’t compare Google, as we know it, to the search functionality in the (an?) AppStore. An AppStore search will show you results based on other things people have been searching for, or gross sales of an app, or keyword/tag matches with the app’s name and description. But that is not good enough.

Here are some examples specifically in the travel vertical:

 

See the problem? Content within apps (like within TripAdvisor) is not being indexed. More importantly even if it were, Google’s way of identifying which results to show first, PageRank, cannot be easily applied to mobile because the notion of (deep) linking to content within an app doesn’t exist. Sure, I can use the Google app or search in Safari to search for this, which would lead me to TripAdvisor’s website. But that defeats the purpose doesn’t it? BTW, Spotlight on the iPhone doesn’t index in-app content either.

I’m not against apps per se. I think the utility model of apps is awesome. But the content within an app is still limited to the app itself. Say what you want about HTML, but it had structure to it, which made it possible for Google, Yahoo and Bing to index the world’s content. When you look at the matrix of development platforms across the major mobile OSs, you’ll see that there is no such structure for the way data is represented on these mobile platforms.

And this leads me to think that Palm’s WebOS really got it right. It was a really forward thinking developer platform. It’s brought the notion of a “light weight web” dev platform to mobile.

So unless I’m missing something and there is a way to programmatically send your mobile exclusive app content to the a search engine, thinking mobile first for your app may not be the right thing to do. Building a game? Absolutely do mobile first (I mean, what else would you target?) Building a location based service or an app that relies heavily on the camera? I think you need to co-launch a web and a mobile app, if you can afford it. Anything else, especially an app heavy on content, you ought to be thinking hard about going mobile first. Because with 300K apps on iOS and growing, your app may never get discovered. Till a “Google for mobile app content” arises, mobile devices are going to continue to be an extension of what our desktops and laptops are today.

@ai

PS: A lot of apps use a 3rd party analytics provider, like Flurry for example. If one of these 3rd party providers can figure out a clever way to standardize indexing in-app content and then overlay that with an algorithm to surface results (I can’t think of how they’d do that), I think they will have solved the discoverability problem for content-heavy apps on mobile in a massive way.

 

Amazon’s Android Appstore off on the Wrong Foot?

The International Game Developer’s Association (IGDA) furnished an advisory yesterday warning game developers about the perils behind selling your game through Amazon’s appstore. Amazon appstore’s terms of service do sound extremely self serving. From IGDA’s post:

1) Amazon steeply discounts a large chunk of its Appstore catalog (imagine: “our top 100-rated games are all 75% off!”). Some developers will probably win in this scenario, but some developers — most likely, those near the bottom of the list — will lose, not gaining enough sales to offset the loss in revenue per sale. Amazon benefits the most, because it captures all the customer goodwill generated by such a promotion.

2) By requiring all developers to guarantee Amazon a minimum list price that matches the lowest price on any other market, Amazon has presented developers with a stark choice: abandon Amazon’s market or agree never to give another distributor an exclusive promotional window.

3) Other digital markets that compete with Amazon (both existing markets and markets yet-to-be-created) may feel compelled to duplicate Amazon’s terms, and perhaps even adopt more severe terms in an effort to compete effectively with Amazon. In essence, we’re looking at a slippery slope in which a developer’s “minimum list price” ceases to be a meaningful thing.

4) Amazon steeply discounts (or makes entirely free) a game that has a well-defined, well-connected niche audience. The members of that niche audience snap up the game during the promotional period, robbing the game’s developer of a significant percentage of its total potential revenue from its core audience.

5) Amazon steeply discounts (or makes entirely free) a hit game at a time when the game is already selling extremely well. This sort of promotional activity may attract consumers away from competing markets and into Amazon’s arms. But it might actually represent a net loss for the developer, which was already doing quite well and didn’t need to firesale its game at that moment in time.

Furthermore, Amazon is pretty strict about apps pointing back to other AppStores from within an app. From this post on Stackoverflow:

So one of my applications was rejected from the Amazon app store today. The reason was because inside my app, I linked to the paid version of the app on the Android market. Disappointing, but whatever, I guess everyone wants their cut…

The buck doesn’t just stop there. Loren Donelson shared his story about how his app was rejected by Amazon because the ads in his app (served by Greystripe) were pointing to the Android market (as opposed to the Amazon appstore). Not his app itself, an ad in his app. From Donelson’s post:

The screenshots reference a third party ad network, Greystripe, that I use to monetize the free app.  Greystripe is used by many, many Android devs including (I think) Angry Birds to monetize free apps.

In my case it looks like Greystripe presented an ad for an Android app and the advertiser’s link pointed to Google’s Android market.  That flagged me for violating Amazon TOS: all links must point to the Amazon app store.

Amazon has responded (to the IGDA) but I think more detailed communication about the rationale behind their self serving policies is definitely warranted. I wouldn’t discount Amazon’s capabilities to build an awesome appstore experience (hey, they pioneered the best webstore) but right now developers should think about how they can use Amazon’s appstore as a marketing tool as opposed to one they can bank on to make (significant) revenue.

Related posts:

@ai

The POS as a Platform

The Point of Sale (POS) as we know it is a very old and closed system. The incumbent in the (hospitality) POS market, MICROS systems was founded in 1978. However the POS has seen very little innovation since then. There are some fundamental issues with today’s POSs:

1. Cost

According to costhelper,

  • Retail or restaurant single-register “starter kits” range from $1,500-$2,500; more elaborate, multiple-station systems with features such as touch-screens, automatic ordering and sophisticated reporting capabilities can cost $15,000-$20,000 and up.
  • IBM has POS systems starting around $1,999-$2,499, but costs can increase up to $4,000 or more per station.
  • Microsoft offers its Retail Management System starting at $1,290 for a single store with one cashier’s lane.
  • QuickBooks sells its Basic POS software for $800, a Pro system for $1,050 and a multi-store version (up to 10 sites) for $1,400; with hardware included, prices start at $1,750.

Unless bought through a reseller, some of these do not factor in the cost of installations, upgrades, deployment or support.

2. Extensibility

Many POS systems do not have a development platform. This severely limits the ability for 3rd parties to come to the POS. OpenTable, Shopkick and Groupon are some of the apps that come to mind that have made their way to the POS. Some time back, my friends and I did extensive research into this area.

It is not impossible to build an app for MICROS, as this Quora thread suggests. But it is not trivial. Radiant, another POS, charges you $25K to get a developer’s license (Quora thread).

Building an app for an exiting POS is non-trivial, if not entirely impossible.

3. Portability



This is not something you can move around easily. An iPad is an example of something that can be moved around easily.

4. Upgrades are not seamless

Like many other hardware+software systems that was built in the 90s, these POSs were not built for easy software upgrades. An upgrade to a POS involves downtime and can rarely be done in-house without the help of the POS vendor or reseller.

5. They Suck

When you walk in to a retail store today, you’ll likely see a very single purpose clunky system with some seriously shady software (that looks like it was built in the 90s).

POS as a Service and as a Platform
Imagine a world where POSs are purely SaaS based and shop owners can pay as they go. This eradicates #1, Cost and #4, Upgrade issues (from above) associated with existing POS systems. I’m also convinced that any web based system (or any software that has been written in this decade) can easily outdo the look and feel of many POSs have today (that solves #5 Suckiness). I’m not sure a pure software POS is the answer, so I won’t get into that. There are many companies that are doing pure web/SaaS POS systems today (VendHQ, Erply, MyMicros, CashierLive etc.) But there is something they are lacking…

Everyone knows what an iPhone app is today – what if this notion of an ‘app’ came to the POS. Imagine an entirely web based POS that had a lightweight HTML/CSS/JS “widget” based app platform (somewhat like the Facebook platform, but not as heavy weight, for starters at least). The POS can enable a marketplace for app developers to build apps that can be easily “installed” on to a POS. Imagine how easy it would be then for Foursquare or Venmo or Paypal or Perkville or a Bill-Splitter app or an E-Receipt app to come to the POS. This would solve #2, Extensibility.

I know of several 3rd parties who will pay a nice premium to get on to a POS (I’m saving you the details here, but I’ve done plenty of research in this area). And these guys are having to do some serious workarounds because of the pain involved in building something for an existing POS. Here’s an example of an iPad that Perkville gave to our neighborhood coffee shop (the founder of Perkville shares the pain of the POS not being as extensible):

 

Yes, I’ve “gotten out of the building”, in Steve Blank parlance, and spoken to several shop owners (small, big and large) to vet that this is something they’d be interested in. The most common concern that was raised: needing a permanent high speed internet connection, but almost all of them were in favor of something that would help save them money and would help them plan better for the future. 

Square

I wasn’t sold when I first heard of Square. Square only appealed to small/tiny businesses I thought. And these guys are a nightmare to market and sell to. Startups have failed because of the challenge it takes to market and sell to small businesses. But this tweet by Chris Anderson the other day piqued my interest:

Over the last year, Square has been gaining some serious mindshare. For small biz owners, the cost of acquiring the hardware doesn’t really exist. Square has most of the issues that I have listed above solved including the one that I didn’t address since it’s a non-software issue, #3, Portability. If Square does actually plan to get into bigger market segments, I think there’s a LOT of money to be made (according to TechNavio, the Global POS Software market is forecast to reach $3,377 million in 2013 from $2,328.1 million in 2009; thus, growing at a CAGR of 9.7 percent over the period 2009-2013 – and that’s just the software market).

In my opinion, Square is in pole position to be building a POS that is a platform. For the better of companies that want to get on to a POS, I hope this is one of the areas that Square grows into.

@ai

Ask More Questions

I spent the majority of my day yesterday in a training session here at IGN. The session was aimed at helping us get better at communication, teamwork and at helping us get better as leaders in the organization.

I noticed some common themes and issues surfaced during the course of the day. And somehow for me, I felt like the solution to most if not all these issues all came down to one thing – I wish everyone would ask more questions and stop making assumptions. I felt like exercising this would rid us of a whole bunch of organizational challenges.

I wonder what it is that makes us morph ourselves from having this childlike mentality where we constantly ask questions. Maybe we don’t want to come across as not being as aware or as knowledgable as everyone else around us? Maybe we’ve been around intolerant people who just don’t like being questioned? Another theory – we sit in classrooms most of our lives and we’re talked “at” and spoken “at” by teachers and instructors. We are asked not to speak unless we’re spoken to. As I think back to my years in school and college, while I wasn’t discouraged from asking questions about something I didn’t understand, interrupting class wasn’t encouraged either. The class was X minutes long, and there was a strict agenda. It may have occurred to you to interrupt and ask a clarifying question, but how often did you actually do it? Why not?

When I’m interviewing a candidate (regardless of the role they’re applying for), I start off by asking the candidate a bunch of ridiculously vague questions and I see how they start thinking about answering the questions. The best candidates usually take a step back and ask me a whole bunch of questions about my questions. That makes the candidate a “fit”, IMO, even if the answers they provide are not correct.

“how would you design a vending machine”

I once had a candidate design the most perfect cola dispensing vending machine on the planet. As soon as I’d asked the question, he didn’t say a word, went to the blackboard and just started designing the vending machine. Sure, it isn’t rocket science to design a vending machine you say. But there’s a lot to factor in. And he factored in all the right things. Then I told him, “you know, I really want to sell iPods and peripherals through these vending machines. In Japan.” The first words out of his mouth after I’d said that were, “is Japan on 100-110V or 220-240V?”

“what is the stock price of NFLX today”

If a candidate knows what the exact price of a stock is at a given time, that’s got to be just great chance. Some times the best answer is “I don’t know”. And I try to get candidates to get used to saying that. If they can learn to ask questions and say “I don’t know” in the 30-40 minutes I spend with them, I consider them a good fit.

“should I buy NFLX stock today”

None of the candidates I interview are in a position to answer if I should buy a certain stock or not – trust me. You’ll be surprised what some of the candidates say. The best answer to this question is, “I don’t know”. Or better yet “I’m not the right person to answer your question, but I may be able to point you to someone else who may be able to better answer your question.”

Having someone on your team who “takes you back to basics” with naïve question asking is a really good thing. Often times we tend to take things for granted when we’re really far along down a thought process. We made some assumptions way back when which forced us to get to the conclusion that we’re faced with today. I suggest you work with someone who is willing to challenge those basic assumption from time to time.

Asking questions is also a polite way of “influencing someone”. My old boss, Paul Murphy, did this extremely well (“Everybody loves Paul“). It’s a clever way of getting someone to provide an answer that you really want to hear.

I’m a big proponent of people asking tons of questions. It’s a cultural thing that was encouraged at Microsoft. I’d love for it be more accepted for people to ask questions, no matter how naïve the questions might be. At IGN, we’ve already started to go down this path and have culturally accepted exercising the “Five Whys“. As a society, I’d love for us learn to be more tolerant of question-askers.

@ai