On APIs, Platforms and Predatory Evolution

There are few technical events that send as many people into frenzy than WWDC. The keynote at Apple’s big developer event is always fascinating to watch on the many sites liveblogging it (my favorite remains Engadget).

Today’s keynote though was unlike the previous ones. While updates to iOS5 were definitely not trivial, they felt more evolutionary than revolutionary, lacking any real “whoa” moments (iike the one I had when Google announced Android’s Accessory Device Kit and Android@home at GoogleIO this year). Worse still, most of the updates seemed more co-opted than invented. Ideas of Notification Systems and “Cloud AppStore” seemed to have been taken directly from Android and a bunch of other features were taken directly from apps already on the iOS platform like mentioned in this NYTimes article

This once again prompted conversations on the whole idea of building a business on someone else’s platform, a conversation that keeps coming up all the time (recently with Twitter and other such players). I have had a bunch of thoughts on this so I thought I’d share

Revisiting a platform’s need for APIs

Creating and running a developer API is a fair amount of strain on any company’s resources and also calls for a realization that at some level they will be giving up some control on the user experience (and may be potential revenue) from their product. Companies that do realize the need for an API do it for one core reason: increase the diversity of the interfaces to the end users. Its a very biological-evolutionary tactic to stave off potential extinction and find the “fittest” application for the core audience. At the minimum it may allow a part of the long tail of your audience to interact more with your service, but at best may make you discover a better way to serve your core audience. Ideas on the latter end of the spectrum tend to get absorbed into the core product either through buyouts or blatant rip offs.

Platform evolution and the death of the idea germinator:

The gut reaction when the platform absorbs the idea that was germinated by some app on their platform is to start counting down to the app’s inescapable demise. Historically though, these apps live or die based on the following factors:

  • The platform’s seriousness in owning that feature
  • The percent overlap of the feature set
  • The market size and diversity

If the platform is really serious about being the only solution for that problem, the  app developer is shit out of luck. This is what happened with Microsoft and IE vs Netscape. IE won out because MS was determined to let it be the only way to get to the internet. Same story (kinda) why OpenFient decided to accelerate its plans for Android when Apple announced Game Center.  For some apps, Apple may not be as determined to own that behavior, but rather have that enabled for its entire audience (when they are determined to own that behavior, the competitive apps get rejected from the AppStore). The seriousness also comes into question on the updates on version 1.1 or 2 of the product. Will Apple have a team dedicated to improving Reading Lists or the Todo App? Probably not, its been checked off as a feature and will be on a lot of marketing materials but may not evolve as fast as the third party apps (think of the updates on the Notes/Weather/Stocks apps for example)

Percent overlap of the feature set is also an good metric to look at. Thats what pushed Konfabulator off OSX when dashboard widgets were announced. With an app like Instapaper for example, does more than reading lists, it also lets me get to them from any other platform and other browsers. Readability on the other hand overlaps a lot more significantly.

Market size is of course relevant, but more than size, diversity and size of the long tail is a big deal. Todo apps for example are an infinite market because almost no-one agrees with the other on which app works for them. The platform can only target the big head there and cannot add any complexity (specially if you are known for that). This allows app makers to compete for the long tail

The Good News:

There is some benefit to a platform making a play in your space as Instapaper developer Marco Arment notes on his blog. First of all it justifies that space as mainstream and not a fringe/power-user behavior. Marco feels that Apple’s move will only make more people move to Instapaper as they get used to the idea of deferred reading but may find Apple’s implementation lacking.

Just as a reference, check out this graph of Facebook’s entry into the geo-location space with their Places product and its impact on Foursquare:


All the publicity doesn’t hurt either.


It will be interesting to see how Apple’s new apps will impact the existing players there. What I did find a little disappointing today was the lack of anything really “new”. All the features mentioned seemed to come to par with features I already use on my iPhone and Android (My personal phone is an Android I love and I carry and iPhone 4 for work). Whats interesting to me is that iPhone and Android are almost coming to a point where they are so totally similar to each other in every way, that the only significant difference between them may be philosophy and programming language. It will be interesting to see if a closed curated system is better or worse than an open one in the long run.


Author: Arpit Mathur

Arpit Mathur is a Principal Engineer at Comcast Labs where he is currently working on a variety of topics including Machine Learning, Affective Computing, and Blockchain applications. Arpit has also worked extensively on Android and iOS applications, Virtual Reality apps as well as with web technologies like JavaScript, HTML and Ruby on Rails. He also spent a couple of years in the User Experience team as a Creative Technologist.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: