Opening Up iOS And Implications

In the 2016 WWDC Keynote, Apple showed how it was going to open up Siri, Messages and Maps. It also showed how it was going to allow VoIP apps to show incoming calls just like how the default Phone app does; using the full screen.

Now if this was just Messages, then we might think that this was in response to the popularity of messaging apps like WeChat which work as platforms. However, if you listen to the State of the Union presentation after the Keynote, then you learn that even Xcode has opened up. It then becomes apparent that this is not just a simple response to WeChat, but a deliberate iOS-wide and even Apple ecosystem-wide direction that Apple is coordinating with their extensions system.

This extension system is not something that is new. In fact, it is an extremely old idea that is more often referred to “plug-in”. It is the idea that allowed browsers to provide rich multimedia experiences before the advent of HTML5. It is the idea that allows programming editors like Eclipse to become very rich tools for a huge number of programming languages. It has already been proven that this mechanism allows programs to be used for occasions that were never envisioned by their original creators, and can be very useful and effective. Although it does tend to add a layer of complexity for the end user, it is undoubtedly a feature that can have widespread impact.

Given that the extensions are likely to be very popular, then it is worthwhile to try to predict how they will advantage Apple and/or dis-advantage its competitors.

  1. Let’s ponder whether Google would open up Maps for example. Would they let third party apps provide the restaurant and shop recommendations layered onto Google Maps? What would be the implications for their business model that depends on showing sponsored recommendations in a more prominent way?
  2. Would wireless carriers be happy with VoIP apps that can integrate into the iOS to behave in just the same way as the default Phone app?
  3. Would Amazon open up its store so that random online stores can integrate themselves in the categorical listings and search results?

Many of Apple’s competitors provide the app layer for free and monetise at the extension layer. Google Maps plans to monetise by providing advertisements relevant to your location, but the Apple Maps extensions will allow third parties to provide this instead of Apple. Similarly Amazon provides an online store website with good search, recommendations and reviews. It monetises when people actually make purchases, which is similar to the layer that Apple’s extensions live in.

What we see here is that Apple has created a powerful extensions mechanism ecosystem-wide, that is almost guaranteed to be popular, and which may conflict with the business models of Google, Amazon and many other competitors.

The implications will be interesting to watch.

  • obarthelemy

    A few things:

    – The “opening up” of Apple’s apps is very limited. For example Siri: http://arstechnica.com/apple/2016/06/the-abilities-and-limitations-of-sirikit-siris-olive-branch-to-other-apps/ . It’s limited by app category, and conspicuously excludes many categories where Apple wants a leg up (music and video playback, maps and traffic…)

    – Amazon does allow stores within its store ( https://www.amazon.com/Anker/ ). They even offer to help with the logistics, and take care of billing. They take a fee for it, is all. And don’t allow custom stores (it all looks like Amazon), but does figure in search and listings.

    – Google probably wouldn’t open up Maps nor its advertising. That’s their core business: it would be equivalent to Apple having OEMs. Google will make damn sure that whatever the competition does, they’ll match it or beat it, ie the Waze acquisition. And they’ll gladly have sponsored recommendations available for purchase, I’m sure ^^

    – On Android, I’m not aware of any restriction on what VOIP apps can do when there’s an incoming call.

    More generally, I think we can indeed draw conclusions from browser extensions:
    – they’re a quick and dirty way to provide functionality that’s missing from the core app
    – they’re never quite as good as native
    – they’re a huge security risk
    – they’re a pain to manage and maintain over the long term

    In the end, when choosing a browser, I always end up favoring not the one with the most extensions, but the one that won’t require extensions to do what I want. My first attempts to switch away from Opera failed because what I deem core functionality (night mode, mouse gestures, rss client, grouped and pinned tabs, sessions…) was missing from other browsers, and the plugins available to make up for that loss have too many issues: they often break with each update, some turn out to be malware, some are flaky or became flaky over time, and there is always a noticeable to huge difference between how well plugins work compared to native features.(*)

    I’m sure Apple can take a better than average stab at solving those issues. I fear that sub-contracting features to 3rd parties is iffy on so many fronts (quality, reliability, security, compatibility…) that it’s mostly a band-aid, and I think Apple customers also prefer first-party solutions.

    (edit) I’d make a parallel with Google’s way: not so much plug-ins, but modularity: don’t like one of Google’s apps ? Replace it with something else. Then they’ll update their own app.

    I’m all in favor of the other way around: making OS features available to all apps. Maybe Apple should start with that ?

    (*) Opera did eventually force me to move away by letting Opera 12 fall into dereliction, and never quite rolling all of 12’s features back into their new versions.

    • Yes. The points that you raise are definitely things to consider. Right now, I’m still pondering how this might surface the different business models and priorities of each ecosystem. I’m still just thinking out loud.

      It does feel like an unbundling of the service layer, which I hope to explain more clearly in the future.

      • obarthelemy

        I think there’s a bit of a philosophical difference too:

        Google acknowledge they’re good at tech and usage monetization, but not at design. They’re willing to compete vs others within their own ecosystem because Google can iterate + rip off designs, others can’t do tech tech and monetization as well as Google, so over the long run Google probably does something equivalent to “embrace, extend, extinguish” to whatever happens in and around Android (innovative apps and features, see multiwindows, pen, Pay, desktop mode…). “Emulate, monetize, extinguish” ?

        Apple is good at design + device sales & locking-in the high spenders. They’re willing to let others contribute to making their ecosystem better, as long as they maintain control of the relationship + UX.

        Hence, Google is more in favor of a gaggle of weak apps they can rip off and suck dry, Apple into carefully vetted services that add value to their apps. In the long run, I wouldn’t be surprised if Apple wanted money for that access to its customers, the same way Google has to pay to be Apple’s search partner.