Private Facebook

Some people are sceptical that Mark Zuckerberg truly intends to shift Facebook's focus to private, encrypted communication.

I think we can take Zuckerberg at face value here. Product-wise it implies a shift in direction and a lot of work. But it doesn't require Facebook to alter its core business.

Whether users communicate publicly or privately with Facebook's products, the company will still have access to vast amounts of data on every user to sell ads against. And it won't necessarily change how un/ethically they use it. This wouldn't have any impact on, for example, using 2FA phone numbers to target ads at users. Or whether Facebook's algorithms promote clickbait conspiracy content because that's what people engage with.

Coincidentally, it sure helps them make the case for integrating Messenger/Instagram/WhatsApp.

There may be some positive changes that come out of this, but for the most part it seems like business as usual.

HomePod Strategy

Apple’s HomePod requires an iOS device, and people are speculating that this is part of a strategy to sell more iPhones and create platform lock-in. I’m not convinced. Some well-worn comparison points:

  • Apple tried this approach with the original iPod and failed. Once the iPod was independent of the Mac, both products became exponentially more successful — lower barrier to purchase for the iPod, halo effect for the Mac.
  • The iPhone required iTunes at first. After years of development effort, it left that requirement behind.
  • I imagine the Apple Watch could someday break free of its dependence on the iPhone. But the technological and UI barriers to moving the Watch from an accessory to a standalone device are significantly larger, so any transition is probably a ways out.

Apple may wield far more power today than they did when they debuted the iPod in 2001, but their business model remains unchanged and very simple: first they try to make best-in-class devices, then they try to sell as many of them as possible.

Requiring an iOS device to use HomePod isn’t profitable lock-in for Apple, it’s a barrier to purchase. If the HomePod is successful enough to stick around, I expect it will follow in the footsteps of the iPod and iPhone and eventually eliminate the requirement of owning a companion Apple device.

Some have pointed out that the Apple Music app is on Android, and so the HomePod’s exclusion of Android must be deliberate and evidence of Apple’s strategy tax. But the Music app doesn’t handle initial HomePod setup. And it sounds as though the HomePod doesn’t make calls, send messages, or sync iCloud data by itself. By requiring an iOS device, the HomePod can lean on iOS system frameworks, as well as the Home App, none of which exist on Android. This is a smart way of launching quicker, while still being able to sell to a large potential audience.

As for where Apple Music fits into all of this, Ben Thompson proposed that the service exists in part to push subscribers to buy the HomePod. I think it exists for a far simpler reason: playing music is a core requirement of any consumer device platform, no different than handling email, calendars, photos, and web browsing. People have expected their computers to be music players since iTunes debuted, and the transition to streaming didn’t change anything, least of all Apple’s belief that depending entirely on third parties like Spotify for core functionality creates long term risk.

The growing number of Apple Music subscribers gives Apple an initial audience to sell the HomePod to, but the service would exist with or without the HomePod. And conversely, like John Gruber hypothesized, nothing precludes the HomePod opening up to third party music apps in the future. Apple probably views their job as making the HomePod the best smart speaker for music so they can sell as many as possible. If one day they can sell to Spotify users with Android phones, I think they will.

Time will tell, I suppose.

iPad Growth

The uptick in iPad sales this quarter has caught people’s attention. One detail John Gruber noted is that:

iPad revenue was only up about 2 percent. That suggests to me, strongly, that this sales bump was driven strongly by the new 9.7-inch iPad that starts at $329.

In response to this, Michael Tsai commented:

I don’t quite understand why people are treating this as a bad thing. It’s good that Apple has made a more affordable iPad that customers seemingly like (unless they just didn’t want to be stuck on iOS 9). And more units sold will be good for the app market.

It is a good thing that Apple makes an affordable iPad that is selling well. I love seeing Apple compete at the low end of the market, something I’ve only truly seen them do a couple of times.1

At the same time, it’s important that the iPad continue to grow at the high end. So much iPad commentary over the past two years of falling sales has been about the fear that the device has already reached its peak potential utility. And if so, that peak has been far lower than what many dreamed of when it first debuted.

The iPad’s average selling price can be seen as an indication of whether the iPad has the potential to continue evolving into a more capable tool. If sales of the Pro line are weak, it’s a sign that Apple hasn’t succeeded in creating useful functionality that takes advantage of improved hardware. And if users don’t need improved hardware, Apple’s business model can’t justify continued iPad software development long term.2

For what it’s worth, iOS 11 seems to me to be the first sign in a long time that Apple can make the iPad significantly more useful for a wider range of people than it has served to date. So while I hope that low end sales continue to grow, I also hope that future quarterly reports show their Pro line growing strongly.

  1. The iPod lineup during its heyday was inspired, and even the MacBook Air had a long reign as an aggressively priced laptop. Both approaches are markedly different than the iPhone strategy of selling yesterday’s models at reduced prices. ↩︎
  2. Unless they manage to build a services business that allows them to profit from users regardless of whether they buy new hardware. ↩︎

Compelled to Share

At a prominent tech company where I worked, I looked into the usage of the share-to-Facebook/Twitter/etc. buttons that were placed on the most visited pages of our site. We didn’t use a persistent share bar, but I still wanted to make sure there was good reason for giving these buttons space at the top of the page.

What I found was that on desktop, the button for sharing to Facebook saw some usage. By “some”, I mean that less than 0.1% of people who viewed a page ended up sharing to Facebook.1 Depending on your perspective, this is either negligible or enough to justify keeping a share button there.

On mobile, out of millions of pageviews in a given time period, shares to Facebook were in the single digits. I don’t mean single digits percentage-wise, I mean that out of millions of people viewing a page, less than 10 individuals used the in-page share button to post to Facebook. And yet that button was fighting for top real estate alongside many other critical pieces of the page.

When it came to other types of sharing, I found that Facebook was the only service people bothered with. Sharing to all other services via the in-page buttons happened at a rate of essentially 0% on all devices,2 making those buttons pointless.

I would never pretend that this one case is representative of the web as a whole. Every site obviously has its own unique set of user behaviors and audience segments that are considered valuable. What I will say is this: I hope every site that has in-page share buttons has analyzed their usage stats to make sure the benefits outweigh the costs in screen real estate, brand advertising, and analytics data given to social media companies.

When it comes to mobile in particular, the site I worked on showed that in-page share buttons were irrelevant. On this I have a stronger opinion as iOS and Android have strong platform-wide design patterns for sharing, whether through share sheets, copy/paste, drag and drop, voice control, or whatever else may come in the future. The data I looked at suggested that these platform controls are what people use, not the social share buttons that junk up webpages the world over.

  1. We used a strict definition of sharing, where we counted a share only if the user successfully posted to their timeline. We didn’t count if the user clicked the initial share button without following through. ↩︎
  2. Even extending out to a generous number of significant digits. ↩︎