How do subscriptions fare in a recession?

App Annie Report on Subscription Economy

Source: App Annie, State of Mobile 2020

The subscription model (‘subscription economy’ was a term apparently coined at least four years ago) is becoming de rigeur in many zones. App Annie’s recent State of Mobile report found that In App subscriptions contributed to 96% of spend in the top non-gaming apps. As an overall proportion of spend they rose from 18% in 2016 to 28% in 2019 (games, of course, still dominate.) It concluded in a recent post: “Clearly companies across industries need to not only be thinking about their mobile strategy, but also their subscription strategy, if they want to succeed in 2020.”

But is this a wise move?

The attention economy, as folk call it, depends on competing for a limited resource — our attention. But it will always be trumped by a resource that determines what can be done with that attention — money. If we have no job, then our attention tends to be focused elsewhere. If we have a job but not much money, or are afraid of losing that job, then our attention to other non-job issues is probably limited.

The other thing the attention economy relies on increasingly is the subscription model. Recurring fees are much more appealing to a company than a one-time cost, which is why everyone is heading that way. But the subscription model has an achilles heel: most services that used the subscription model in the old days were because of the way they were produced and delivered — electricity, water, telephone, gas, newspapers, cable. And most involved some lock-in: an annual or quarterly contract etc, which hid the overhead costs of connecting, delivering and disconnecting in the subscription. But to disrupt these entrenched subscription services OTT upstarts which didn’t have those costs like Netflix made it real easy to subscribe — and unsubscribe.

And here’s the rub. When subscription becomes a discretionary spend — something you can shed like a skin when the rain comes, then you find the weakness of the subscription model. This is why old guard subscription model players like the New York Times have transferred their approach to digital, knowing it’s better to alienate a few users by making unsubscribing disproportionately harder than subscribing, absorbing the hit of a few angry folk like me in order to keep the bulk of subscribers who couldn’t be bothered to jump through the hoops.

So when the Coronavirus Recession hits you, what are you going to shed? Discretionary spend is the first one to go, and that usual means monthly outgoings that just don’t seem to be as important as they were when you were coasting. Indeed, a lot subscription economy players, like Statista and others, only offer an annual subscription, although they price it per month to make it sound less. It’s cheaper, and more predictable, to charge per year.

I’m not convinced that software is a good candidate for subscription models. I understand its appeal, and I am as frustrated as them how the mobile appstore has reduced the amount that people are willing to pay for good software.

When Fantastical, a calendar on steroids for macOS and iOS from Flexibits, went from a one-time fee to a subscription model it split the community — especially those on iOS who suddenly had to pay 10 times what they were paying before. John Gruber argued $40 a year for a professional task app on all Mac platforms was a decent deal, arguing that those who don’t want to upgrade can still use the old version, and he’s probably right. But I haven’t upgraded and have instead shifted over to another calendar app, BusyCal, that is included in Setapp, another subscription model which bundles together multiple apps for $10 a month. In part that was because of the annoyance of finding certain features still available as menu items in Fantastical but blocked by popups:

Not the kind of productive experience I am looking for. Hobbling or crippling, as it’s sometimes called, is never a pretty look. You either have the functionality or you hide it.

A better route is to be flexible. Of course, there’s an upside to monthly subscriptions that are real easy to start and stop — when the sun shines, you can easily resubscribe. Indeed, the smartest subscription model in my book is the freemium one — where you can easily move between subscription levels depending on usage and how empty your pockets are. I recently canceled my paid Calendly subscription, downgrading to the free model and was told by a helpful customer service person that “you can certainly choose the monthly plan on your billing page and pay for only the months you need it for! That might work better for you.”

I would recommend any company moving to the subscription model to do this. Or to pursue the bundling model. Not to lock people in — where one subscription depends on another — but to make what might have been discretionary spend something that becomes necessary spend through a compelling use case. Setapp is that model (though sometimes I baulk and wonder if I’m paying over the odds). A lot of the apps I use on Setapp are ones that I would have not otherwise found — and I’m an inveterate hunter of new apps. By making the marginal cost of using them zero, I find they worm their way into my workflow. Setapp helps this by taking  an interesting route, in that its appstore-like mothership is so baked into macOS that searching for an app installed on my computer via Spotlight or Alfred will include in the results apps that haven’t been installed but are part of Setapp. So if I’m looking for a photo editor, or screenshot taker, or calendar app, on my Mac the results will include those in Setapp that I haven’t installed.

This shoehorns productivity into the subscription model. It’s helping to make Setapp more useful by introducing me to new apps it is has in its portfolio — thus making all the apps in Setapp more recession-proof because the more Setapp apps I use, the less likely I’m going to cancel the subscription overall. (Yes, those apps I don’t install or use won’t get a cut, or will get a smaller cut, but the overall rising tide will help keep all the boats afloat. Or in a tweak of the analogy: all the apps in the Setapp boat, amid the buffeting recessional sea, rely on the size of the boat to keep them all afloat. Only if the boat sinks will they sink).

Bundling makes a lot of sense in disparate fields — I’ve been advising media clients to seek out bundling options with other subscription model companies which previously might have been regarded as competitors. Bundling should not be the cable TV model of putting the good stuff and crap together and forcing subscribers to pay for both, but to try to anticipate — if your customer data is good enough you shouldn’t have to guess — what else of value is in your customer’s discretionary bucket, and try to move both yours and those into a necessary one. A tech news site coupling with a tech research service, say. 

In the meantime, expect a lot of subscription-based approaches to suffer in the recession. I expect by the end of it the subscription model won’t be so appealing, or will require more creative thought processes to evolve. The key is in not treating the consumer as either stupid (that we don’t realise $5 a month adds up over a year) or lazy (that we won’t do what is necessary to cancel a subscription if we have to), but to take the freemium model seriously: make it really easy to reduce our payment when we need to, and really easy to go back when we’re feeling flush again. Just don’t cripple the quality of the service you have committed to deliver, even if it’s free, by ads beseeching us to pony up or by drawing arbitrary and punitive lines which make the free version more irritating than alluring.

Then just wait out the storm, as are we all, and hopefully you’ll remain useful enough in the free version to stay on our radar when the sun returns. 

New investing app for millennials

A quite cute new app called Moneybox launched today in the UK allows millennials to save without thinking and invest in stocks, also without really thinking. 

The blurb: 

The Moneybox app, which launches today in the App Store, enables users to round up their everyday card purchases to the nearest pound and invest the spare change.

For example, when you buy a coffee for £1.80, the purchase will appear in the app and you can choose to ‘round up’ to the nearest pound. The additional 20 pence is set aside to invest across thousands of companies worldwide including Apple, Facebook, Netflix and Disney, via three tracker funds. In addition to round ups, the app also allows users to set up weekly deposits and make one-off payments into their Moneybox account.

To help users decide how they would like their money to be invested, Moneybox offers three ‘starting options’ – cautious, balanced and adventurous. Users can customise their investment choices using a simple slider interface.

Targeted at Millennials, the app aims to make it easier than ever for people to start saving and investing. By enabling users to sign up in minutes from their mobile phone and start investing with as little as £1, Moneybox hopes to open up investing to a new generation.

Yes, it’s kinda sad that you need to make it real simple, but I like the approach.  

Microsoft’s Naked PC problem

This is a piece that I wrote with Gerry Shih in Beijing about Microsoft’s challenges in emerging markets beyond the recent raids.

‘Naked PCs’ lay bare Microsoft’s emerging markets problem

BY JEREMY WAGSTAFF AND GERRY SHIH

Sun Aug 10, 2014 9:42pm EDT

(Reuters) – On a trip to Beijing a decade ago, Bill Gates was asked by a senior government official how much money Microsoft Corp made in China. The official asked the interpreter to double check Gates’ reply as he couldn’t believe the figure was so low.

It’s a problem that hasn’t gone away. Indeed, Microsoft’s current issues in China conceal a deeper problem for the U.S. software giant – despite the popularity of its Windows operating system and Office suite, few people in emerging markets are willing to pay for legitimate copies.

This not only costs Microsoft in lost revenue, but is also holding back the spread of its newest Windows 8 version – analysts say even buyers of pirate software prefer older versions. According to StatCounter, a website that tracks what software is loaded on Internet-connected computers, more than 90 percent of PCs in China – now the world’s biggest market – are running pre-8 versions of Windows.

Microsoft is trying to tackle this. This year it’s offering Windows 8 at a discount to PC manufacturers who install its Bing search engine as the default. And it’s giving away versions of Windows 8 for phones and some tablets.

But, as the industry shifts from desktop to mobile, the cloud and free or cheap software, China sums up both the old and new challenges Microsoft faces in making money in emerging markets – and, increasingly, in developed ones.

“The great danger for the company is that what has happened to them in emerging markets – basically no revenue from new PCs because of piracy – is not far off what’s happening everywhere,” said Ben Thompson, the Taiwan-based author of stratechery.com, a popular technology blog.

CORE COST

For sure, China is a major, and unique, headache for Microsoft. Many of the problems are tied to a broader push by the Chinese government to limit foreign firms’ dominance and encourage local technology firms to become viable competitors.

After years of healthy relations with Beijing, Microsoft last month was suddenly targeted by anti-monopoly regulators who raided its China offices as part of a price-fixing investigation.

But the spats mask the fact that Microsoft has never really cracked how to get people in emerging markets to pay for its software. The company rarely breaks out revenues by geography, but it has provided clues about the size of the problem.

In 2011, then CEO Steve Ballmer reportedly told employees that, because of piracy, Microsoft earned less revenue in China than in the Netherlands – with 1 percent of its population – even though China bought as many computers as the United States.

According to the BSA anti-piracy lobby group that Microsoft co-founded, emerging markets account for 56 percent of all PCs in use, and 73 percent of software piracy. Of the $77.8 billion revenue Microsoft generated in its 2013 financial year, China, Brazil and Russia each “exceeded” $1 billion, according to a Microsoft presentation. For comparison, Apple Inc generated $27 billion in Greater China, which includes Hong Kong and Taiwan, in its 2013 financial year.

For Microsoft, that’s a lot of lost revenue from the heart of its business. “Windows and Office are still very much the core of Microsoft,” says Sameer Singh, an India-based analyst.

The most recent breakdown by Microsoft of its results by product line – for the first quarter of fiscal 2014 – shows that 56 percent of its global revenue and 78 percent of operating profit came from Windows and Office.

Microsoft doesn’t just lose the revenue from pirate copies, it also loses access to customers who might buy other Microsoft products that work with or on top of Windows and Office.

Across most markets, Windows and Office account for more than half of revenues, says Andrew Pickup, Microsoft’s Asia PR chief. This, analysts say, is because many of Microsoft’s other products, such as Exchange and Windows servers, depend on customers already using Windows and Office.

“The Microsoft ecosystem is obviously pretty interconnected,” says Jan Dawson of U.S.-based Jackdaw Research. “So it makes sense that the proportion of revenue would be similar in emerging markets.”

NAKED PCS

Part of the intractability of piracy in emerging markets is that each part of the chain poses a problem.

For PC makers working on wafer-thin margins the operating system is one of the costliest parts of the machine, while mom-and-pop shops which form the bulk of retailers in such markets can’t afford to turn away price-sensitive customers who are comfortable buying pirate software.

The problem, therefore, starts with computer makers, Singh says, since “convincing them to ship every PC with Windows pre-installed is difficult.” Margins on PCs for a company like Lenovo Group Ltd are “near single digits,” says Bryan Wang, an analyst at Gartner.

The result is that up to 60 percent of PCs shipped in the emerging markets of Asia, says IDC research manager Handoko Andi, have no Windows operating system pre-installed – so-called ‘naked PCs’, which usually instead carry some free, open source operating system like Linux. That compares with about 25 percent in the region’s developed markets like Japan and Australia.

A quick scan of Taobao, the popular Chinese e-commerce site operated by Alibaba, shows a vast selection of PCs shipped with Linux rather than Windows. Once the machines hit the retailers, it’s hard to tell where legitimate software stops and piracy begins.

On a recent morning in Zhongguancun, a teeming electronics hub in north Beijing, shopkeepers offered to bundle what they said were legitimate versions of Windows with a new laptop, either for free or the equivalent of about $30.

Microsoft began lobbying Lenovo in 2004 to stop shipping naked PCs, but the Chinese firm countered that its margins were too low, a person familiar with the negotiations said. Two years later – just days before then-President Hu Jintao visited Gates’ U.S. home – China announced a new law requiring PCs to be shipped with operating systems. That merely dented piracy rates, which fell to 79 percent in 2009 from 92 percent in 2004, according to the BSA.

Lenovo said it reached an agreement with Microsoft in June of this year to ensure that Lenovo PCs sold in China would come pre-installed with a genuine Windows operating system.

“MOBILE ALSO-RAN”

Microsoft’s new approach is to push the price of Windows low enough to make it worth a PC maker’s while. The cost of a Windows license has fallen to below $50 from as high as $150, said IDC’s Andi, taking Microsoft down to “levels where they’ve never competed before.”

Microsoft’s Pickup said it was too early to gauge take-up.

In any case, making Windows cheaper for PCs is just part of a broader response to deeper shifts in the industry. The rise of mobile, tablets, cloud-based services and free operating systems has marginalized Microsoft and challenged its business model.

While Windows is on more than 90 percent of traditional computers – according to data compiled by analyst Ben Bajarin – that figure drops to below 14 percent once mobile devices such as phones and tablets are factored in, estimates Gartner.

More than half those devices run Google’s Android mobile OS, which is effectively free to handset and tablet makers. Apple, a key player in all types of devices, gives away upgrades to its operating systems for free.

Pickup says Microsoft has listened to phone makers’ complaints and relaxed what hardware they need to install the mobile version of Windows. It has also made the operating system free on any mobile device of 9 inches or less.

Taken together, the moves are “about bringing down the cost as more and more of the populations in these emerging markets are having their first computing experience,” Pickup said.

These are significant concessions, analysts say, but Microsoft will have to learn to be a bit player, where its software and services run on other people’s operating systems.

“The biggest threat to Microsoft,” Dawson said, “is the shift from a PC-based world where Microsoft dominated to a mobile world where Microsoft is an also-ran.”

(Additional reporting by Noel Randewich in SAN FRANCISCO and Bill Rigby in SEATTLE; Editing by Ian Geoghegan)

Taxi Dating Apps?

I’ve been meeting a better class of taxi driver lately. It’s been made possible by something called GrabTaxi, which I have begun to think of as a dating app for passengers and taxi drivers.

Of course, it’s not really, that would be weird. But it kind of is.

It’s just one of many apps and services across the world seeking to make the process of booking taxis easier. At one end of the scale there’s Uber, which aspires to allow anyone to be a taxi driver, matching car and driver with passenger. At the simpler end are apps like GrabTaxi, which offer taxi drivers another way to take bookings beyond their usual dispatcher.

Prospective passenger and cabbie install the app, and the app does the rest.

There’s a lot that’s interesting about all these apps, as they contribute to making what can be a very a frustrating experience more efficient. Eventually, it’s likely they’ll change what we think of as a taxi ride: imagine a world where every car could offer taxi-like services, driven either by their own or someone who rents them. Taxi companies and the authorities which regulate them look set for a bumpy ride.

But that’s not here yet, and anyway, I’m more interested in a different kind of benefit: providing a way for passengers and taxi drivers to have more say in who they share a car-ride with.

Think about it: it’s kind of weird that we place so much stock in safety on the roads but entrust our lives with strangers — either driving or sitting in the back. In some countries it’s like playing Russian roulette.

But even in supposedly safe places like Singapore it’s a bit of a raffle. As anywhere, Singapore cabbies are a motley bunch, ranging from those you’d happily take home for tea to those you wouldn’t, er, share a car with, let alone drive it. It’s not that they’re deliberately trying to kill you, but you sometimes get the feeling they’d rather you weren’t really there. Rides can vary from stony silence to being a captive audience for angry tales of woe or pet enthusiasms.

I just spent a good half an hour in one cab listening to the cabbie’s collection of CD sermons from a charismatic preacher called Justin. It was OK until he started extolling the virtues of the birch on one’s offspring, complete with sound effects. I made my apologies and alighted.

This is where apps like GrabTaxi come in. There’s something about downloading and installing an app that seems to appeal to a classier kind of cabbie: on each occasion I’ve had need of their services, each has been a joy, if a tad eccentric.

One young man we’ll call Dave took us the airport the other day in car decorated like his bedroom, or what I imagine it to look like, obviously we didn’t get invited back. It was black, like his Iron Maiden t-shirt, complete with laced black curtains that made it feel like a cross between a heavy metal shrine and a coffin. In a nice way. Dave himself was charming.

This is the thing, you see. The great thing about first adopters of technology is that they all have something in common — in this case a taxi app. I the passenger have something to break the ice with, while they — and I’m trying not to generalise here — presumably quite enjoy their job and want to do more of it. With some taxi drivers that is not always the case: many, when they’re not actually trying to kill you, will spend a lot of the ride complaining about pretty much everything: the government, the taxi company, other drivers, life in general.

Not so early adopters. They have a more positive outlook on life. Hence this sense that the usefulness of GrabTaxi is less about finding a taxi, than finding a taxi driver who can get me from A to B and not either kill me or make me want to kill myself before we get there.

Of course, all this is incidental to apps like GrabTaxi. Their goal is to match taxi and passenger based on availability, not on compatibility. But that’s where I think they’ve missed a trick. Add a few tweaks to their app and they could allow passengers to choose cabbies based on their likely conversation topics, attitudes to issues of the day, history of comments from other passengers, whether they help with pushchairs and shopping. And vice versa: passengers, too, could get rated by cabbies.

It might encourage both parties to put on a better show.

And who knows? A few of us might get invited home for tea.

This is a longer version of a piece I’m recording for the BBC World Service. I no longer upload the podcasts here because of time constraints, but they can usually be found from time to time at the tail-end of the Business Daily podcast available here. While I’m a staff correspondent at Reuters, this is not written for Reuters.

Software as Silo

Software is a funny thing. How important is it?

Apple has just announced it’s giving most of its away for free — effectively costing it some $900 million in the short term. Samsung has just convened its first developer conference in the hope of persuading more people to write software for its devices. Microsoft, known for its Office and Windows software, has just bought a phone manufacturer — Nokia — and promises a new raft of its lacklustre Surface tablets. Google, known for the money it makes off its software, has promised more Glasses, and owns a cellphone maker, Motorola. Amazon, which sells stuff, also makes tablets and e-readers, and is rumoured to be getting into a phone.

What companies are increasingly recognising is that software is everything but not on its own. To succeed in this new world of ubiquitous devices, you need to own as much as possible of what is loosely referred to as the ecosystem. That means hardware, software, and the services that make both hardware and software come to life.
Think a phone where you can take videos, edit them into a short movie at literally the push of a button, and then share them with friends with another push. Or a tablet that lets you and control see your company’s inventory or fleet of trucks in real time.

But this isn’t easy. It requires expertise in very different areas — areas that until recently were regarded as best considered separate industries. Focus on what you’re good at, the mantra used to be. Now, it’s more like: you’ve got to be good at all these things, or you’ll die. Think HTC, which makes great devices but hasn’t succeeded in building the software and services that makes those devices stand out.

Some companies can be good at all three, but it’s a fast-moving game. Think BlackBerry, which was good at both hardware, software and services for a while, with its email service, its own operating system and its keyboard-bound devices. But the world moved on, and BlackBerry didn’t move quickly enough.

So now it looks like Apple is heading the pack. But it too, is vulnerable. The world has been captivated by the phones and tablets it creates, but some detect a sense the company, without Steve Jobs, quite understanding where to go next. It’s likely to be an Apple TV, which should be interesting.

Samsung is late to the game, dangerously so. It dominates the world of phones, but has been slow to build software and services to bridge those devices to its other products — computers, TVs, fridges, etc. Only this week has it really embraced developers and tried to make it easy for them to do this. Samsung’s future hinges in being able to rid itself of its dependence on Google’s Android operating system — either by building an operating system of its own, or a suite of apps that run on top of it that make a Samsung device so much more valuable than one from LG, Sony, HTC or Huawei.

Then there’s Microsoft. By making its operating system and much of its software free, Apple has thrown down the gauntlet to its old rival. It’s not saying these products have no value: it’s saying that software is what makes hardware compelling, and so we’re effectively making the two one single product. For Microsoft, still largely a software player, that’s quite scary. No wonder the company is betting heavily on building its own hardware.

In some ways this is good for the consumer, in some ways not. On the one hand we’re already seeing the hardware basically controlling the software — automatically updating itself, optimizing itself for the user. On the other, the goal here is clear: bind the user to a single stack of hardware, software and services, increasingly isolated from each other. A Samsung phone may be a great device to control your TV with, layering little apps atop the screen, but don’t expect it to work with your LG smart TV. And don’t bother trying to use Apple’s AirDrop feature to send a file to your Samsung phone.

The bottom line is that these companies are being hugely innovative, moving the puck at impressive speed. But in their efforts to escape becoming commodities, they’re pushing us into silos. Nice silos, very nice silos, but silos that make me think more of the past than the future.

The rebirth of RSS?

This is a column written for the BBC World Service (here’s the show.). Views are my own, and do not represent those of my employer, Thomson Reuters. 

I’ve been wrong about a lot of things, but I’ve been particularly wrong about something called RSS. RSS is a simple standard, dreamed up during the halcyon days of the social web when there were enough interesting people writing blogs for it to become somewhat onerous to drop in, as it were, to see whether their website had been updated. In other words, there was a critical mass of bloggers to take blogging into the mainstream, but there was no easy way for the medium to scale from the point of view of readers. It was like everyone printing their own newsletter but asking interested readers to drop by their office every so often on the off-chance that a new edition had been published. 

So RSS, short for really simple syndication, was born. Essentially it wrapped up all the blog posts into a feed, a bit like a wire service, and pumped it out to anyone who wanted to subscribe. It worked brilliantly, but contained within in the seeds of its own — and, I would argue, social media’s — demise. 

The problem was this: As RSS became more popular more blogs used it. And websites. Reuters has a dozen or so; the BBC too. Soon every website was expected to have at least one RSS feed. Software called Readers became the main way to digest and manage all these feeds, and they worked well. So well  that Google got into the game, and soon dominated it. But adding feeds was still a tad awkward, but really RSS’ demise was, in my view, because of something else. 

As social media grew — I’m talking the early years here, when blogging was the preferred medium of expression, and when a certain civility held sway — it contained essential contradictions. Not everyone could be a creator, because then no one would have time to read what everyone else had written. A few kings and queens of social media emerged, and while a long thin tail remained, for the most part blogging simply grew to become like what old media was. Lots of “Talent”, lots of unrecognised talent.

In its place grew a different kind of content that could be more easily commercialised — the breadcrumbs of daily life, the links we share — which we now think of as Facebook, Twitter, Kakaotalk and WhatsApp. Content has become shorter,  and while some of those tools initially used the RSS standard to deliver it, for the most part each became a walled garden, largely fenced off from each other and driven by the value in the data that we shared, wittingly or unwittingly. 

So back to RSS. RSS is still with us, though Google is canning their service soon (eds: July 1). I am a tad upset, having predicted RSS would sweep the world. I was wrong in that, failing to take into account that content, like everything else, will tend to cater to shorter attention spans and the economics of the marketplace. But I do have hope that RSS won’t die off entirely. There are glitzy tablet apps for those who like their reading to come with big pictures and swooshy noises when you turn the digital page. A host of companies, including, ironically the once undisputed kings of the walled garden, AOL, are launching readers for Google refugees. 

I for one still need to fix some problems with my own RSS habits — the tendency to acquire new ones, the failure to read the ones I do subscribe to — but at least some people somewhere thinks there’s life in a daily diet of serious, lengthy reading without lots of eye candy. 

iPhatigue

This is the text of a BBC piece I wrote, based on our Reuters story of a week or so ago.  

The problem with smartphones is that they’re visible. We want them to be visible; we flaunt them. We put them on the table in restaurants, we fiddle with them if conversation lags; we not only need them, we need to be seen with them. 

Nothing encapsulates this ostentatiousness more than Apple’s iPhone. It has become not only the most popular smartphone on the planet, but it’s become the iconic accessory. But is it losing its lustre? 

At least in places like Singapore and Hong Kong, pockets where the iPhone was once king, I believe it is.

Driven by a combination of iPhone fatigue, a desire to be different and a plethora of competing devices, users are turning to other brands, notably those from Samsung.

According to one measure, a website gauges traffic collected across a network of 3 million websites, Apple’s share of mobile devices in Singapore fell from a peak of 72 percent in January last year to 50 percent last month, while Android devices rose from 20 percent to 43 percent.

This seems to be backed up by checking out commuters: Where a year ago iPhones swamped other devices on the subways of Hong Kong and Singapore they are now outnumbered by Samsung and HTC smartphones.

This is partly driven by iPhone’s success. For some, it is a matter of wanting to stand out from the iPhone-carrying crowd. Others find the higher-powered, bigger-screened Android devices better suited to their changing habits – watching video, writing Chinese characters – while the cost of switching devices is lower than they expected, given that most popular social and gaming apps are available for both platforms.

Of course this isn’t the end of Apple or the iPhone. The company could come out with a great iPhone 6 and I’m sure the fickle public would flock back. And Apple makes a lot more money from its devices than does Samsung, so don’t expect its CEO Tim Cook to be panhandling on your street corner any time soon. 

But there is something at play here. For one thing, Singapore and Hong Kong tend to be bellwethers of Southeast Asia, and to some extent India and parts of China — all big and important markets. 

Then there’s a longer term issue: it was usually assumed that, once converted to the iPhone, users would loyally stick with Apple. For one thing, the whole ecosystem thing — downloading apps, music, movies and syncing with other Apple devices — would lock folk in. For another, aren’t Apple users supposed to be blindly loyal to the brand? 

The apparent decline in iPhone users in Singapore and Hong Kong suggest that neither of these assumptions necessarily holds true for all those who buy Apple devices. This is hardly surprising, perhaps, given how many iPhone users there are out there.

But it might also suggest that smartphone users are much more inclined to jump from one brand to another, and from one operating system to another, than we thought. If so, that has implications,  not only for Apple, but for Samsung too, as it basks in its dominance of the Android-driven market.

Perhaps, just perhaps, all those hip Samsung users might soon decide the hip smartphone to show off is a device from a company we’d either written off, or one we haven’t even heard of.

We’re Not in the Business of Understanding our User

Za-tray2

A few years ago I wrote about sometimes your product is useful to people in ways you didn’t know—and that you’d be smart to recognise that and capitalize on itn (What Your Product Does You Might Not Know About, 2007).

One of the examples I cited was ZoneAlarm, a very popular firewall that was bought by Check Point. The point I made with their product was how useful the Windows system tray icon was in that it doubled as a network activity monitor. The logo, in short, would switch to a twin gauge when there was traffic. Really useful: it wasn’t directly related to the actual function of the firewall, but for most people that’s academic. If the firewall’s up and running and traffic is showing through it, everything must be good.

The dual-purpose icon was a confidence-boosting measure, a symbol that the purpose of the product—to keep the network safe—was actually being fulfilled.

Not any more. A message on the ZoneAlarm User Community forum indicates that as of March this year the icon will not double as a network monitor. In response to questions from users a moderator wrote:

Its not going to be fixed in fact its going to be removed from up comming [sic] ZA version 10
So this will be a non issue going forward.
ZoneAlarm is not in the buiness [sic] of showing internet activity.
Forum Moderator

So there you have it. A spellchecker-challenged moderator tells it as it is. Zone Alarm is now just another firewall, with nothing to differentiate it and nothing to offer the user who’s not sure whether everything is good in Internet-land. Somebody who didn’t understand the product and the user saved a few bucks by cutting the one feature that made a difference to the user.

Check Point hasn’t covered itself in glory, it has to be said. I reckon one can directly connect the fall in interest in their product with the purchase by Check Point of Zone Labs in December 2003 (for $200 million). Here’s what a graph of search volume looks like for zonealarm since the time of the purchase. Impressive, eh?

image

Of course, this also has something to do with the introduction of Windows’ own firewall, which came out with XP SP2 in, er, 2004. So good timing for Zone Labs but not so great for Check Point.

Which is why they should have figured out that the one thing that separated Zone Alarm from other firewalls was the dual purpose icon. So yes, you are in the business of showing Internet activity. Or were.

(PS Another gripe: I tried the Pro version on trial and found that as soon as the trial was over, the firewall closed down. It didn’t revert to the free version; it just left my computer unprotected. “Your computer is unprotected,” it said. Thanks a bunch!)

The Browser Wars: Another Milestone

(This is a copy of my Loose Wire Sevice column, produced for newspapers and other print publications. Hence lack of links)

By Jeremy Wagstaff

As you know, I’m into milestones, and another one has been passed in recent days: Microsoft’s market share of browsers is down below 60%.

Now this may not sound very exciting to you, but it is. And you are to be congratulated. Because it’s you who have made it happen.

Let me explain.

A couple of years ago, when I started training journalists on things digital, I used to ask them what browser they used. They either answered Internet Explorer—Microsoft’s browser, which comes with Windows—or they would look blankly at me.

The truth is that since the demise of Netscape in the late 1990s, there really hasn’t been much of a battle between the browsers. Most Windows users accepted Internet Explorer, while Mac users settled for the Apple browser Safari.

So when I would ask the class whether they had heard of Firefox, the Open Source browser, they would again look blank, or bored, or both.

That was then and this is now, two years on.

Now most of them have heard of Firefox, and many of them have it installed on their computers.

Not only that: Most of them have tried out Google’s own browser, Chrome.

Indeed, nowadays, when I venture a peek over shoulders at cafes and in offices, I see many more Firefoxes (or Chromes) than I used to.

So it doesn’t surprise me to read that, according to research company Net Applications, Internet Explorer’s market share has, for the first time in more than a decade, fallen below 60%.

Of course, 60% still sounds like a good chunk of the market, but remember this: Internet Explorer is the default browser on Windows computers, which still occupy most of the world’s desktops. Last year that figure was nearly 68%. Two years ago, when I started the training course, the figure was 77%. Back in 2003 it was 95%.

Compare this with Firefox, which is now on nearly a quarter of the world’s computers. And while Chrome has only a small share—6.7%—it is growing at quite a clip. A year ago that figure was closer to 2%.

Some of this may be down to a ruling in Europe which has forced Microsoft to offer 12 different browsers. But more likely is that people are getting smarter—more demanding—about what is on their computers.

After all, we spend a lot more time in our browser than we used to. Most of us now use webmail, rather than a separate email application. A lot of us use tools like Google Docs, rather than Microsoft Office. And, of course, there are productivity killers like Facebook, all of which are primarily accessed through the browser.

So what makes these other browsers so appealing?

Well, Internet Explorer is considered notoriously insecure, for one. Lots of bad things are supposed to happen if you use for online banking etc. And users like their browsers fast and light. But perhaps most importantly, Firefox—and increasingly Chrome—offer a range of plug-ins (little bits of software that, well, plug in, to your browser to do extra things for you, from tell you the time in Timbuktu to letting you save clips to online databases, or to Facebook).

This, I think, is part of a broader trend that Microsoft and others haven’t figured out yet.

I see an increasing number of people using Gmail, Google’s webmail service, and I’ve noticed that all these people have customized their interface. This wouldn’t have happened even a year ago. Now they’re exploring beneath the hood of the default settings, and changing their environment to suit their moods and work styles. Some of these changes are small—background colours or themes—but they’re also more productivity-oriented, adding labels and filters to their workflow.

This is great. This is just what they should be doing. But it’s also part of a bigger trend that I believe explains the inexorable shift away from the default.

The simple truth is that as we spend more time in the browser we’re less likely to just go with what’s given to us. We want our browser to be as good as possible and because the changes we make to our online services are movable feasts: If I’ve changed the background on my Gmail to black, shifting to another browser isn’t going to reset it back to boring white.

There’s another factor at play here. Websites used to look very different depending on what browser you used. That’s changed, as developers follow standards more closely (what’s called being “standards compliant”). This gives us users a lot more flexibility—we don’t feel like we’re going to break something on our computer, or not be able to access, say, our banking website—if we’ve left the reservation and installed another browser.

The next step: the browser replaces your operating system. Google is onto it. 

Driver Phishing II, Or Who Is Trentin Lagrange?

I’m fully awake now, and doing some digging on who is behind the Driver Robot “driver phish.” The digging has introduced me to a whole level to the software scam industry.

The company that sells it is Victoria, BC, Canada-based Blitware (“or Blitware Technology Inc.,  to be precise,” as its website urges us). Nothing gives on its Who Is page, nor on the driverrobot.com website the software is hosted at. But a clue to the possibility that this isn’t just some cute little software developer is back on the LogitechDriversCenter website, which carries some named testimonials, among them this:

“I got a new graphics card but the framerate was terrible, and the manufacturer’s website didn’t help at all. It turns out that the driver that came with the card was 6 months out of date! Driver Robot got me the latest driver automatically, and now my whole system is more responsive, especially the games.”

Trentin Lagrange, CA

The good thing about a name like Trentin Lagrange is that it’s not that common. Not like the other two testimonials, which come from one Tim Whiteman and one Susan Peterson (not that they aren’t helpful. But nothing like Trentin.)

Who is Trentin?

A Google search of Trentin Lagrange indicates that either he’s a huge fan of driver update software, or that it’s not just about Logitech drivers or one small Canadian company anymore.

Trentin Lagrange, it turns out, has left glowing testimonials for driver update software, not just on the dodgy Logitech website (and a sister one at logitechdriverdownloads.com) but on websites like Realtekdriver.net, which also carries the company’s logo and calls itself “Realtek Drivers Download Center”:

image

As with the Logitech website, it’s only if you scroll down to the bottom of the page and click on a link “About us”

image

do you get to the truth of whether it’s a company website:

REALTEK is registered Trademarks of Realtek Semiconductor Corp.
All other trademarks are properties of their respective owners.
This website is not owned by or related to Realtek Semiconductor Corp.
We are not associated with Realtek Semiconductor Corp. in any way.
We are just running a site to help users who have trouble to getting hardware device drivers,
This web site is not associated with Realtek Semiconductor Corp. in any way.

Trentin has also left testimonials on websites that impersonate Dell-–delldriverscenter.com—complete with Dell logo

image

and favicon

image

And SIS at sisdrivers.org:

image

and MSI at msidrivers.org

image

and Intel at inteldriverscenter.com

image

and Asus at asusdriverscenter.com

image

and Acer at acerdriverscenter.com

image

and canon at canondriverscenter.com

image

as well as HP – hpdriverscenter.com

image

and driverforhp.com, with this HP-looking banner atop:

image 

No denials of being associated with HP on their about page, so I’m guessing HP’s lawyers haven’t been in touch yet.

Another website, atidriverscenter.com, seems to have closed. It was active in July, when this person fell for the scam and complained on a forum.  At least some companies seem to be watching.

Well, maybe not. This website, atidrivercare.com, is still working:

image

You get the picture.

Google’s Role

All of these websites appeared as sponsored ads above the search results in Google when looking for that manufacturer’s drivers (hp drivers etc) which throw up links to, for example, “official HPs [sic] Drivers & Updates”:

image

(For many users these sponsored ads are either normal search results, or sponsored in the sense of vetted, so they’d be forgiven for thinking that they’re clicking on something official.)

It seems that either Trentin, Tim and Susan are just really generous with their comments and share software tips on a regular basis, or this software schmoozefest is linked to Swishsoft the company that sells Swift Optimizer, software that compresses Flash files. All three put glowing reviews on the software website, althought it seems Susan has moved from the U.S. to Australia in the meantime. Must be the taxes.

And no, I couldn’t find any reference to Trentin Lagrange apart from glowing software testimonials. Either the guy just lives to write software reviews or he is not really living.

So, we’re clear that whoever is behind DriverRobot is also behind a number of websites that basically impersonate the websites of popular hardware vendors, either within the boundaries of the law or outside the knowledge of these companies’ lawyers.

Sponsored Run

But it’s also energetically fending off accusations that it’s all a scam. Do a Google search for driver robot and you get these sponsored ads above the results:

Similarly, the ads on the side of the results:

  • DriverRobot This Is The Real Deal?
    The Truth Will Shock You! reviewblogs.info
  • “DriverRobot” Report We Bought It And Tried It.
    The Truth Will Shock You! www.todaysreview.info/DriverRobot
  • Driver Robot Exposed Buying Driver Robot?
    Get The Facts! RealityChek.net

    The top one is a straight link to the download site. The others sound like links to stories exposing the scammery, right? But they’re not: They all take you straight to driverobot.com. No reviews, or even pretence at reviews.

    Clever, huh? Outwit your detractors who accuse you of impersonating official company websites by impersonating your detractors. There’s a twist I hadn’t thought of.

    Where are the Reviewers?

    But what about those logos from respected software reviewers, like PC Magazine, Softpedia (five stars!), Geek Files ((5/5 stars, Exceptional Product!) and Chip on the LogitechDriversCenter.com website and elsewhere?

    image

    I could find no reference to Driver Robot on the PC Magazine website. On Softpedia’s website I could find no “editor’s review” but found one user review—giving it two stars out of five but saying it used “borderline means to promote its service.” GeekFiles.com contained only discussions, no reviews.

    Depressing

    All of this is faintly depressing, because all the usual checks and balances we look to on today’s web seem to have gone out of the window:

    • a website address can contain a company’s name, with no apparent action from the company itself to protect either its name or its customers;
    • Googling a product doesn’t seem to work: sponsored ads mislead with words like “official” and what look to be review sites are actually redirects owned by the product’s owner
    • Badges from third party download and software websites don’t seem to be a guide, because they are either out of date or fake.

    The fact is that many people are going to be taken in by this kind of thing. Everyone needs drivers, and everyone searches for drivers by googling the manufacturer’s name and the word driver. As many people search for hp drivers as search for kenya on Google:

    So what I want to know is:

  • What are the companies involved doing to protect their brands, their products and their customers from misleading and potentially damaging products sold in their name?

  • What are software reviews sites doing to protect their brands, and their consumers from fraudulent badges?

  • What is Google doing about sponsored ads that mislead the public?