Less than a month ago, Valve launched Steam Chat to all of its users. The feature is a near exact clone of Discord, the leading chat platform for gamers. The services had a small chance of success, being as it is built into the most popular gaming distribution client for PC games, but it had a big uphill battle against the existing platform. It is always difficult to challenge an established and beloved brand, especially in an industry that is overpopulated with brand loyalty.
Seemingly in response to Valve's attack on Discord, Discord has rolled out an almost direct attack on Valve. Rolling out in phases, the Discord Store Beta has begun selling indie videogames directly to gamers in the existing Discord client. The new tab features a curated list of games, intended to feel less like a megastore and more like a mom-and-pop shop. According to Discord,
We'll be launching a curated game store experience similar to one of those cozy neighborhood book shops with recommendations about the hottest and newest games from us to you.
We'll be showcasing a variety of titles that we think you'll like. As the store grows, we'll rely on our community and our team to make the store feel super personal and focused on games that we genuinely think you'll enjoy!
The idea of a super-focused store that highlights some favorite content will certainly set the Discord Store apart from its competitors. However, it won't generate the same kind of revenue that a larger store would generate. As such, it will require a high rate of buy-in from the community to be able to be successful. To make being in the Store and game launcher more appealing, Discord has created a universal launcher, which will scan your computer for all of your existing games and will be able to launch them, regardless of their platform.
Discord is in the same boat for buying games that Steam is in for game chatting: behind the 8-ball. Working in a niche, especially indie games, gives them a chance to compete against the established brands.
Over the past few years, phones have definitely gotten larger. In fact, since the beginning of the consumer smartphone market, phone screen sizes have nearly doubled. The original iPhone had a 3.5-inch screen, while the original Android phone, the HTC Dream (known as the T-Mobile G1 in the US), had a 3.2-inch screen. Compare that to the iPhone X's 5.8-inch screen and Samsung Note 9, announced officially this week, with its 6.4-inch screen, and you can see a big change in the market.
Not everyone enjoys a phone with a large screen for a variety of reasons. Whether it be the way it feels in your hand, an inability to fit in into a pocket, or a variety of other reasons, there is a market need for high-profile phone with a smaller screen. Growing electronics brand TCL, who has become known for owning niche markets, is rumored to be interested in a small screen.
After Blackberry ended hardware developement, they licensed the brand to TCL to continue developing phones. Those phones, which focus on the otherwise ignored market of physical keyboards, have seen some pretty impressive success for a brand that had all but been written off completely.
TCL intends to do something similar with the small screen market, planning to re-launch the Palm brand, which they acquired after HP uncerimoniously killed it off in an idiotic and failed plan to become a software services company. Based on some leaked renders, the rumored phone, possibly to be branded the Palm Pepito, is designed in a similar style to the old Palm Pre line, minus the sliding keyboard - apparently that is reserved for Blackberry.
The screen is to be 3.3-inches, will ship with Android Oreo 8.1 and will feature 3GB of RAM And 32GB of internal storage. The device is expected to launch in partnership with Verizon Wireless in the US. That is not an unexpected partnership, as the Palm Pre Plus launched on Verizon before AT&T and T-Mobile jumped onboard with the Palm Pre 2 the following year. Verizon has previously said that they would launch a Palm-branded phone in 2018, so we can expect to see more about the Palm Pepito in the near future.
Ever since YouTube released YouTube Music in May, users have been less than pleased with the experience. The large collection of music has not been enough to compensate for the terrible user experience or the complete lack of common music streaming service features. Many users have been so disenchanted that they switched back to services like Spotify.
The company has finally recognized their own shortcomings and has put into place a process for releasing new features to the platform. Starting now, YouTube will release new features to their apps every 2 weeks, with external storage releasing now. That means that, with the most recent release, YouTube Music can store music to an SD card or hard drive, which is good for most users who have a small amount of internal storage and a large amount of external, specifically for media.
In addition to feature additions, the company plans to fix a number of the interface issues. Hopefully, these changes will include making music searching more useful, as well as album discovery and content sorting. All of these things are standard fare for streaming services but are all made painful in the YouTube Music platform.
Of course, it's important to remember that YouTube Music is still very new, only being released less than 3 months ago. It is unusual for Google to get any interface correct in the first release (in some cases people don't even know what the product does). They do usually figure it out with time, which is likely how this product will go, as well - in time.
In 2010, Google was offended by the Chinese government forcing them to censor search results. The government had demanded that Google remove any search results containing references to topics such as freedom, democracy, human rights and peaceful protest. As a result, the company turned off censorship and awaited the country's response, which came within hours. YouTube and other Google properties were blocked nearly immediately, with the rest of Google going away shortly after. At the time, Google's chief legal officer, Senior Vice President David Drummond, said,
We want as many people in the world as possible to have access to our services, including users in mainland China, yet the Chinese government has been crystal clear throughout our discussions that self-censorship is a non-negotiable legal requirement.
That is a very clear and firm stance on the idea of censorship, especially government-enforced censorship, from Google. Today, the tone at Google has changed significantly. The company regularly and almost gleefully censors content on YouTube daily, and not at the request of any government, but simply because they disagree with the content. There is even some evidence that Google may be shadow banning search results under the same circumstances.
This week, a report from The Intercept suggests that Google has decided that, with their new censorship-friendly attitude, it is the right time to give China a try again. The project, which is codenamed Dragonfly, has already gained a lot of momentum, including a meeting with the Chinese government last December to gain approval. The new Chinese search engine would be distributed as an app and would "blacklist websites and search terms about human rights, democracy, religion, and peaceful protest."
As the US government has continued to raise concerns about US companies doing business with the Chinese government, and about Chinese companies doing business in the US, it was inevitable that Congress would get involved. A collection of 6 Senators, including Mark Warner and Marco Rubio, sent a letter to Google expressing their concerns about the rumored project. The letter goes so far as to say that, if the rumors are true, Google could be considered complicit in China's human rights violations. It also says,
It is a coup for the Chinese government and Communist Party to force Google - the biggest search engine in the world - to comply with their onerous censorship requirements, and sets a worrying precedent for other companies seeking to do business in China without compromising their core values.
It would certainly be a huge win for the Communist Party to be able to say that such a large company was brought under the thumb of the Party. These kinds of fear-based PR campaigns are how Communism spread so widely the first time, and how Socialism is trying to spread today. It would be a problem for other US companies if Google does agree to censor their content in China.
There is no question that Fortnite is currently owning the gaming industry as well as determining its current direction. Many of the biggest gaming studios want a piece of the Battle Royale pie, except maybe Microsoft, as do the gaming platforms. Like Minecraft, Fortnite is available just about everywhere: from the more traditional PC, Xbox, PlayStation and Switch, to macOS, iPhone, and iPad, almost everyone can play the game wherever they are, though not with one another if you're on PlayStation.
There is one glaring exception to the platform list: Android. While Apple has a healthy portion of the mobile market, they are still #3 behind Samsung and Haiwei, both of which run on Android. In fact, Android holds 85% of the phone market, meaning that the game is missing the majority of the mobile gaming market. This week, a bit of an explanation was given as to why in the form of an announcement of the distribution for the game.
Rather than distributing the game through Google Play, the game will instead be distributed directly from the company's website. This will be inline with the distribution model for both Windows and Mac, where downloading the installer from the website is the only way to play. The experience will vary depending on the version of Android being run. If the device is running Oreo, the experience will be similar to installing on Windows: clicking the download button will prompt about the dangers of downloading from the internet and allow you to bypass. If the device is running pre-Oreo, the experience will require turning on a feature in the settings menu before trying to install. This method can open the device up to security problems, though, so it should be disabled immediately after install.
Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney has had a lot to say on the topic since the announcement. He has acknowledged the security issues inherent in installing from a website. First, there will be malware-laden clones all over the web which will be trying to trick people who aren't paying attention into installing fake versions. In fairness, there will also be these fake versions in the Play Store. Also, turning off security on older devices can be incredibly dangerous for those same users who accept any prompt on their screen. Sweeny says,
Open platforms are an expression of freedom: the freedom of users to install the software they choose, and the freedom of developers to release software as they wish. With that freedom comes responsibility. You should look carefully at the source of software you're installing, and only install software from sources you trust.
That makes sense when you're dealing with responsible parties, but a kid with a phone is neither responsible nor are they careful. These are the users that Google and Apple were working to protect with some of the features of their respective stores. However, with some of these protections comes something else: a monopoly on the market. Especially for Apple, who does not allow sideloading of apps, but also for the majority of Android users, the platform makers have a monopoly on apps. That is how they can get away with gouging developers for 30% of all sales.
30 percent is disproportionate to the cost of the services these stores perform, such as payment processing, download bandwidth, and customer service.
Because Epic doesn't need any marketing help from Google to make Fortnite a success on Android, they could very well have success with sideloading apps. However, for smaller companies, this is simply not possible and, in return, are forced to pay the 30% commission to Google for little to nothing in return. Epic might believe they are fighting the good fight, but it will likely not lead to anything but headlines for themselves.
Since the beginning, one of the top ways that people discovered new apps for iPhone, iPad, and macOS has been through the Affiliate Program. Through the program, websites and influencers alike could promote one or more apps and make a small commission on sales. The program is what has made app review websites possible, which makes finding new apps easier while giving a consistent view of these new apps.
The program was responsible for 7% of all app purchases in the store in 2017 - a huge symbol of success. The success of the Affiliate Program has been in large part because of the overall lack of discoverability in the App Stores themselves. Over the years, Apple has tried to make the experience better, with features like Today, but the company has never quite understood the process of discovery. The Today tab seems to be the same for everyone, regardless of their interests. As I am writing this, for example, I am being advertised a category called "Texting for Tweens" which has no value to me as a user. In addition, the apps being featured are all products that the majority of people already know about: Hulu, Netflix, HBO Now, Prime Video, etc.
This behavior is the opposite of discoverability: it is just featuring of already successful apps. Thankfully we have the Affiliate Program to help promote apps that you don't already know about. That is, until October 1, 2018, when Apple will be removing apps and in-app purchases from the program entirely. This move on Apple's part is likely to cause app-centric websites to have revenue issues, meaning many of them will close. It will be a big hit to marketing for new apps unless Apple's claims are to be believed.
In a letter sent out to current affiliates, Apple claims,
With the launch of the new App Store on both iOS and macOS and their increased methods of app discovery, we will be removing apps from the affiliate program.
So, Apple is working on something new in the App Store to promote discoverability. The App Store on the current iOS 12 beta does not have anything new or exciting as part of it, so either the new features will not be previewed ahead of time, or it won't launch until the new devices are announced later in the year. The latter would make sense, being as October tends to be iPhone announcement time.
This does serve as another reminder that building a business on someone else's brand is always a dangerous idea. When the company changes its priorities, you can lose your entire business, as these app discovery websites are unfortunately about to discover for themselves.