Mostly Sunny With 100 Percent Chance of Apples
The forecast is certain. Tomorrow, Apple will rain features from the Cloud, and it’s a very big deal. The iPhone 5 will be the first device that relies on the Internet and server farms to complete its functionality rather than a PC. The company that popularized the personal computer in 1977 is officially telling us we no longer need one. It’s the mark of a new age. The features will be awesome and the implications vast, of that I’m certain.
But I don’t know the details. Employees new and old keep their secrets close. That said, certain aspects of iOS5 have been made public for developers and speculation seems high that this is the juncture where Siri, a company on whose board I sat, will re-emerge as a core part of the operating system. Here’s a heads up on what’s coming now — and perhaps later — so you can prepare.
Apple’s recently announced iCloud offers a host of new features but the most underappreciated is device configuration in the Cloud. It will have everything you need to configure and keep your iPhone up to date without a PC. Every Apple device you have will be linked with an Apple ID and iCloud will know the configuration of each one. No more long sync required before a phone upgrade, no more painful restore, simply enter the Apple ID and password and voila, good as new. This will make life easier for people with multiple iOS devices, but the implications go far beyond.
When configuration lives in the Cloud, modification to the configuration happens in the Cloud as well. That means you could install an app onto your phone while clicking a Facebook ad, reading a blog, or responding to an email. Every banner advertisement you see on the web will be an opportunity for app developers to entice you, and with your browser already cookied, a single click could make the new app magically appear on your devices.
This marks a major change for mobile app developers to promote their wares. Being on the Top 25 list won’t matter quite as much; there will be lots of ways to get the word out and drive downloads. The same PPI (pay per install) ad economy that multiplied AdMob’s revenues and led to the Google acquisition will be available to the rest of the Internet ad landscape. With the sophistication of ad exchanges today, app developers could bid on impressions of only Apple users and efficiently target the right people. Developers will need to have instrumented analytics all across this marketing funnel to maximize their opportunity and not get killed by others who have figured it out. Advice: App devs need an Internet acquisition animal in-house.
Sixteen months ago Apple acquired a technology company named Siri. Siri was small, with three amazing founders — Dag Kittlaus, Adam Cheyer, and Tom Gruber — as part of a total of only 20 employees. Their size did not match their monumental ambition. Founded out of SRI where the technology originated and a Series A round from Menlo Ventures and Morgenthaler, the company was the first to make a “Virtual Personal Assistant” actually work. As an app running on the iPhone, users speak in natural language to book tables, order taxis, check flight times, and many other functions. In fact, their original venture pitch called the service “Hal” after the computer personality in the movie “2001: A Space Odyssey.” The app requires the Cloud because although voice is captured on the phone, the computation required to parse the words into intent and then invoke the chain of web services to accomplish the user’s goal is too much to run on the phone. Siri’s server farm does the heavy lifting.
The native integration of Siri into iOS could change the game in three ways. First, voice input will be a breakthrough for touch screen devices. Although users tolerate soft keyboards in exchange for larger screen size, typing anything of length is still painful and even short bursts are more convenient with voice. Siri found the overwhelming majority of queries were spoken rather than typed. High-quality voice recognition along with Siri’s semantic processing could allow a new level of instant gratification when capturing a reminder, queuing a playlist, or sending a text message, especially while driving.
The second game-changer could be voice access to apps. While Siri had to do all of its integration with other services (e.g., OpenTable) in the Cloud via web APIs, as part of iOS it would be possible to interact with any app on the phone seamlessly, with login credentials already there. Imagine being able to say “Checking account balance” and the banking app comes up to that page, or “Directions to Jim’s house” and the phone starts TeleNav to navigate you there.
The third implication is that Apple would be joining the search game and squaring off with Google. For the category of searches that people do on the go, the desired result is often a completed action rather than a page of blue links. Siri is a superior technology for getting the job done quickly. Both companies have a mobile operating system, a mobile device, an app store, and now an engine for navigating the web. It will be a fun one to watch. Advice: 2011 will mark the year a voice user-interface delivers real value and will rapidly become a must-have feature, prepare to respond.
Media on Demand
In addition to the PC Free features deriving from configuration in the Cloud, iCloud also stores media and data in the Cloud where it belongs. For personal media like pictures and videos, that means no more priceless baby shots at risk of deletion on the phone. All of the pics will get synced between devices and likely be shareable from the web.
Purchased media like music and videos will also live in the Cloud. For $25 a year, iTunes Match allows users to unlock pristine copies of all those songs they, um, ripped from CDs. Time will tell if it’s enough to stop the flow of people from iTunes to Cloud music services like MOG and Spotify. Movies will be in the Cloud too, allowing start times to be counted in seconds rather than the minutes required for download and sync. Apple already dropped the hard drive in their 2nd gen AppleTV to turn it into an Internet streamer like Roku, and I wouldn’t be surprised if a larger screened device resembling a TV appeared soon. To monetize all of this newfound cost, Apple has a model that seems inspired by Dropbox: Offer the first 5GB free and when users hit their limit they have little choice but to plunk down some extra bucks for an annual storage fee. Advice: Don’t waste your money on an Internet-enabled TV, it will be obsolete by the time you plug it in.
In 2007 after the iPhone launched, I emailed Steve Jobs to encourage him to take a meeting with TeleNav, a portfolio company who pioneered navigation on the mobile phone. Before TeleNav, the gigabytes of data required to render U.S. street maps was too large to put on phones so TNAV pushed the data, routing engine and traffic into the Cloud and streamed just the information required for GPS-enabled handsets to give turn-by-turn directions. They now power the majority of carrier navigation services in the United States. The fit with the iPhone was a natural. I fired off my carefully crafted note and got back a brief reply:
Shawn, Which provider does TeleNav get their map data from? Why would it be hard for Apple to also license this data and extend its own map application to do what TeleNav’s does?
I replied with reasons of course, but never heard back. Apparently he decided Apple should do it themselves. Since that time, Apple has hired a number of engineers with navigation expertise. Though it has taken them several years, the service has been spotted recently in the wild and will likely show its face soon. Advice: Get an iPhone mounting kit for your car.
The move to the Cloud represents a tectonic shift in the IT landscape for both enterprises and consumers and the disruption is just beginning. It’s wonderful to see Apple embrace it wholeheartedly to drive value for their customers. For companies that are prepared, there will be great opportunities as a part of the ecosystem. The analysis could continue for pages, but I still haven’t found the iPhone5 pre-order page so you’ll have to excuse me for now.
Shawn Carolan is a Managing Director at Menlo Ventures, where he has been for nine years; he focuses on consumer Internet and mobile investing. He sits on the Boards of IMVU, PlayPhone, Roku, Talari, TeleNav (NASDAQ: TNAV) and YuMe.