Is iOS 14 fundamentally changing what kinds of apps can be successful? And … with iOS 14 … is Apple building a fundamentally different future for software?
In this episode of TechFirst with John Koetsier, we chat with Nick Hobbs, the former head of Google’s iOS app. Hobbs, who is currently building a new kind of news app, Brief, says that iOS 14 is fundamentally different and that it will benefit certain kinds of apps while de-prioritizing others.
We chat about when Google’s traffic from iOS massively dropped, and what will happen this time with games, Facebook, Google, and more. And, of course, we also chat about The Social Dilemma.
Get the full audio, video, and transcript of our conversation below …
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(This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity).
John Koetsier: Is iOS 14 fundamentally changing what kinds of apps can be successful? And with iOS 14, is Apple building a fundamentally different future for software?
Welcome to TechFirst with John Koetsier.
The former head of Google’s iOS app says that iOS 14 is fundamentally different in that it will benefit certain kinds of apps and de-prioritize others. To learn more, we’re chatting with Nick Hobbs, who is the current CEO of Broadsheet and the former product manager for the Google app on iOS. Welcome, Nick!
Nick Hobbs: Thanks so much for having me, John. I’m really excited to be here. I think it’s an important conversation.
John Koetsier: I’m really excited too. We had a chat before, sort of pre-show chat, and there’s some really, really interesting things we’re going to get into.
You’ve told me that iOS 14 marks a fundamental change for Apple, and that this change will benefit certain kinds of apps and de-prioritize others. And specifically, you said that Apple is building a fundamentally different future for software that will result in attention-focused developers failing, and service-oriented developers winning.
What’s that mean?
Nick Hobbs: Yeah. You know, I’ve been in Silicon Valley for about a decade now, and I think our industry has two paths forward into the future.
One of them, we go to the best universities and we find the brightest minds, and we funnel them into companies like Facebook. And there they will learn how to get people to scroll through their feed for another minute, another hour, and get really good at getting people to look at another ad and clicking another buy button.
And then there’s another path where we take those same really talented folks, we take all of that opportunity, and we instead invest it in companies like Netflix and Spotify and Amazon, where those people will learn how to make products that are so good, that people will happily pay every single month to keep using that service.
And I think when you look at iOS 14, you can see that Apple is not neutral on the question of where technology goes in the future. Littered throughout the OS are lots of changes that make it very clear they don’t want their products and platforms to be tools for attention merchants … that when they look at the future, what they want to do is help build a world where you, as an iPhone user, as a human in the world, can be really confident that every service you’re using, the engineers that are making it only care about one thing … and that is making an incredible experience for you and helping improve your life.
And so I think the iOS 14 update is in both ways big and small, a really strong statement that Apple wants to be building a future of services and not one of this monetization of attention.
John Koetsier: So let’s jump into then, some of the new features of iOS 14, because in some ways it feels like a revolutionary change to Apple’s iPhone and iPad operating system. It really … there’s one thing in particular that really brought that home to me, and I mean, I’m in the space, I’m checking it. I was on the iOS 14 beta for many weeks, maybe months, and I installed an app — we talked about air quality, I live near Vancouver, we’re getting smoke from the fires in Oregon and California and Washington state up here — and so I installed an app for air quality. I’m sure those apps have just roared up in terms of popularity recently.
And I installed the app and then I started looking for it. And I couldn’t find the app … and guess what? Of course, it’s iOS 14.
So what are those changes that you’re talking about?
Nick Hobbs: Yeah. So one of the things that changed that I think has flown under the radar but is really fundamental, that you just mentioned is, you know, for the entire life of the iPhone, if you download an app it goes on your home screen. It’s right there, every single app is on the home screen.
And in iOS 14 that’s no longer true.
By default, all the apps get put in what they call the “Library,” which is kind of a side space, and you can search for them. You can still find them, you can go into the library and drag them onto your home screen. But as a developer, you have to earn that spot on the home screen.
And I think it’s a good example, because, not only have they made this change to make the app tiles less prominent, but they’ve also given tools to developers to build really great home screen experiences that you couldn’t before.
So another feature that they’re introducing is widgets. And that’s a really great example of, we now have tools that make it really easy for if we can provide a helpful home screen experience to you, you’ll want to install it ’cause it’s very helpful every day. And so they have kind of a carrot-and-stick approach where they both are like taking away the easy win of just like throw the app tile on the home screen, badge it with a red icon to get people’s attention and you’ll get usage. And a carrot approach where you also now have new tools to create really great experiences to justify your real estate on that home screen.
And so that’s what we’ve been investing in, in our product Brief. And I think it’s a really interesting new paradigm for the most important part of the iPhone, which is the home screen, right, like you’re going to go there a hundred times a day. And this is a really big shift.
John Koetsier: It is a really big shift. It’s a big shift as an app publisher to think, hey, I got the install. I’m on the home screen. I’m riding around on the three foot device that’s never far from somebody’s body … and you’re not really there in a sense. It’s also, the App Library is a little different.
Android’s had something similar for quite some time, where you install an app and it goes, you know, not necessarily in the home screen, but it goes in the app drawer and you can search for it there, you can find it there, that sort of thing. But the way Apple’s implemented this is there’s some — they’ve grouped, they’ve categorized some apps together, and then they’ve made some apps in there big by default and then some are small.
And the big ones are supposedly the ones you use most frequently, and the smaller ones are the ones that you don’t, you’ve got to tap in and then you see all the apps in that category…
Nick Hobbs: Right.
John Koetsier: …and then you can select the one you want. What I found interesting when I looked at that is I didn’t agree with Apple’s consideration for which apps I use most frequently. And I don’t have hard data on that, I would need to do that.
But in the social category actually, what it told me is it told me that I was in Twitter more than Facebook, and so Twitter was a one tap and Facebook wasn’t. And I didn’t think that was actually true. So that’s interesting because you’re talking about usage, and when you are used, you earn the right to appear.
What kind of apps do you think will fail in this kind of environment?
Nick Hobbs: Yeah. So I think the business model of software in the future is gonna look different. And just to give you a little bit of an anecdote of what I think is shifting, my co-founder Andrea and I founded Broadsheet, and we make a product called Brief, and whenever we run into a problem — which happens all the time…
John Koetsier: It’s a start up.
Nick Hobbs: Yeah, yeah. Our first instinct is like, go find somebody who’s solved this problem before and beg for help, right?
John Koetsier: It’s very millennial.
Nick Hobbs: Yeah. It’s, you know, and we’re lucky that we have a really great network of folks who are willing to help. And one of the things that I have found best about working in San Francisco is people are very generous with their time if you’re working on something interesting. And so this almost always works, with the exception of one problem.
So Brief is a news service, and basically our value proposition to you is, if you give us a few minutes a day, you’re going to know about every important issue that’s out there. It’s all of the news with none of the overload. And so naturally, the last thing that we want to do is shove apps in that experience, so we are a pure subscription service. And the one thing that we have the hardest time getting people to help us with is understanding how you get people to pay for software.
We’ve basically, we’ve spent a decade teaching everybody in Silicon Valley that you can do anything as a consumer software company, right? Like you can pull a Robin Hood and you can sell your user’s trading data to like the darkest shadiest part of Wall Street. Right? Like, you can pull a Facebook and you can sell my attention to anybody that has a credit card.
But the one thing you can’t do is ask people to pay money. And as a result…
John Koetsier: It’s funny, I’ll just interject on that.
Nick Hobbs: Yeah, go go go.
John Koetsier: I just did a story on a Liftoff report on mobile gaming, for instance. And you know, mobile gaming, it’s really cheap to acquire users right now. It’s about $1.50 or something…
Nick Hobbs: Mm-hmm, yep.
John Koetsier: …like that. But to get a user who actually spends money in your app is more like $45. It’s very, very hard to do. 1 to 2% of people actually spend money in apps, so that’s the problem you’re trying to hit right now with a subscription app.
How are you solving it?
Nick Hobbs: Yeah, I mean, I think, there are a few things going on here. So there are things that we’re doing in specific and I think then there are broad secular trends.
So I think for a very long time, it was hard to get people to pay for a service, right? Like the idea of paying for access to content on the internet just felt like you were a sucker, right? And now the exact opposite is true.
Like if you talk to your average millennial, the idea of owning a library of DVDs is terrifying, like, I don’t want that. I just want to pay you and be able to get whatever show I want, whenever I want. And so I think there’s a fundamental shift in what consumers see as valuable, that we just get to ride as a wave, right? You know, if you go and you say that we’re going to offer you a really great news experience, all you have to do is pay us $5 a month, you can even try it for free.
That’s a thing that if you did five years ago, everyone would’ve looked at you like you were an insane person. And now it’s just very normal, right? Like we see incredibly high trial conversion … sorry, go ahead.
John Koetsier: Yeah. I want to get to some of your experience here, because this is not the first time that you’ve navigated a massive shift in terms of the operating system that your application resides on. So you used to be the product manager or product leader for the Google iOS app.
Nick Hobbs: Yeah.
John Koetsier: And you had to manage the transition from iOS 6 to 7 and you had severe impact for that. In fact, you had severe impact pretty much every time Apple updated iOS.
Nick Hobbs: Yeah.
John Koetsier: Can you talk about that a little bit and what the challenges were, and maybe that’s relevant to what we’re seeing today as well?
Nick Hobbs: Absolutely. I mean, I know my colleagues at Google right now are probably dealing with some similar fires.
Basically every time September rolled around, Apple would make some change that drastically impacts ad revenue. And the iOS 6 to 7 shift was a really interesting one, Apple did a complete design overhaul of their operating system. And I think when we think about what impacts ad-monetized businesses, most of what we think about is the data side, so like, what are they going to do with IDFA and things like that.
But the most drastic impact that we ever saw was actually just a change in the user experience where they redesigned Safari. And I think it’s a really interesting snapshot into how different companies behave and what they value.
So at Google, we just basically took it on faith that more searches is better, right? Like, people searching more, that is a happy user is the person who’s searching more. And when they redesigned iOS 7 and introduced a new look for Safari, traffic fell off a cliff. Like it looked like a Great Depression graph.
And it wasn’t that Apple didn’t want people to search, it’s just, they care about a lot of stuff, right? They want like a clean, beautiful, minimalist UI where every time you unlock your iPhone it feels great, right? And that’s really valuable to them in a way that we at Google, that wasn’t a thing, that wasn’t our top priority.
Our top priority was like more searches equals happier user.
And so I think one of the things that I learned from that, that is very different about these ad-monetized versus like service-oriented businesses, is the service-oriented business is about the whole picture, and balancing all those things to create a good experience.
Whereas like the Facebooks of the world, you know, every time, if the decision is more traffic or less traffic, more ads or fewer ads, you know how that answer is gonna go. It’s just … it’s the same answer every single time.
And so that was an interesting experience that probably started my shift in thinking about how you can think about software differently and really thinking about the whole picture.
John Koetsier: What’s interesting to me, is that this shift right here, and I’ll just show this … I don’t know how well that’ll show up. I think that’s starting to show up a little bit there.
Nick Hobbs: Yeah.
John Koetsier: This is the widget screen on iOS 14. So basically, you have your standard home screen, right, which is all your list of apps. And you go to the left, swipe to the left — this is not Tinder, this is your operating system — swipe to the right, and there’s your App Library, right?
Nick Hobbs: Yeah, yeah.
John Koetsier: And so, that’s really interesting because you mentioned Google, you worked for Google, Google released the widget, the iOS 14 widget.
I think I will use Google a lot more in iOS 14 than I ever did in iOS 13, 12, 11, 10, any of those, because right now — because then Google was just one icon among 50,000 and frankly it was buried.
It was buried for me, in a folder.
Nick Hobbs: Yeah. Yeah, yeah.
John Koetsier: I didn’t use it, but now it’s literally one swipe away and then one tap, and I can do a voice search. I think I’ll use Google more frequently now.
Nick Hobbs: And I think I absolutely buy that.
And I think the real big winners in iOS 14 are people that provide real utility, right? And Google does that.
Like Google Search is a phenomenally useful service, right? And having that handy is something that just is great, and I think those businesses will do very well. If you’re providing clear utility every single day, then a widget makes perfect sense. It’s just what I want, one step closer.
On the other hand, if you’re a business that is trying to distract and steal attention, like the last thing that I want on my home screen is a Facebook widget that when I go to unlock my phone to check my email because something important came in, I’m all of a sudden outraged about, you know, the thing my family member said on Facebook, right?
And so I think that’s where you see this separation of who’s going to succeed and who’s going to fail. Is that people who provide real utility every single day, like those are the winners in iOS 14. And the people who are trying to distract you and then monetize that attention by selling it to somebody else, that’s not a future that Apple wants to build.
John Koetsier: It’s almost like The Social Dilemma in some sense, the show that’s on Netflix and is one of the top 10 shows for the past couple weeks here. Very interesting show. I watched it a couple days ago, absolutely love it. Let’s get into it. You’re running obviously a news subscription service. It’s a startup. Broadsheet is the name of your company. What was the name of your app again? I forget.
Nick Hobbs: Yeah, the news service is called Brief.
John Koetsier: Brief. Excellent. And so you’re thinking that this new direction iOS 14 will be good for you. Let’s talk about some other categories of apps as well that’ll be impacted by this.
What do you think about in terms of games? And of course, mobile games are, there’s a variety of different ones, right? There’s hyper casual, that’s the game that you want for 30 seconds while you’re waiting for something to happen, your coffee to be done or whatever, right? And there’s sort of mid-core, it’s a little more involved, you might have a five minute, three minute gaming session. And then there’s of course the hardcore full on, you know, I’m on a team and we’re fighting and we’re battling, and I gotta join the team and if I don’t my buddies will get mad at me.
What games will do well in iOS 14 do you think?
Nick Hobbs: Yeah. You know, let me talk to you a little bit about what’s working for us right now, and then I’ll talk to you about what I think that means for the gaming industry. So for people who are watching this live, I’ll go ahead and share my screen so you can take a look at what these new experiences look like. And then I’ll talk a little bit more about how I think that they’re changing apps that will be successful.
So, this is my home screen on iOS 14 and we can see that I’ve got Apple’s weather widget here, and I’ve got my calendar … and then we have our experience here which is what we call the “Front Page” and it just gives you access to your news brief. And so you can come through here and get a few quick news updates, and then be done. And…
John Koetsier: Wow. I like that checkmark. That’s like, hey, I finished the news for today. I feel accomplished or something.
Nick Hobbs: Absolutely! And that comes through on the home screen too. When you come to us and there’s no new news that needs your attention, we just give you this beautiful image and say, like, move along your day, right?
And that’s actually a valuable service to say, like, you don’t need to check the news right now, there’s nothing important for you to understand. That’s a valuable service to me, but it’s hard to monetize with attention, right? You just can’t do that.
And we think this is a really great home screen news experience because it isn’t here to distract you, it’s just here to deliver utility. And the other one that’s been wildly successful for us in the last couple of days is we created a widget for the FiveThirtyEight election forecast. So, you can in just like a two second glance, see how is the presidential race going, and today the Senate forecast launch. So you can check how’s my home state Senate race going.
And again, it’s just like in a quick glance, you can immediately understand what’s going on. And these things are valuable because they have a very clear value proposition, right, where it’s like, I know I want to check FiveThirtyEight every day. I can just look at this widget and be like, oh yeah, that is useful information to me. It is immediately obvious value.
John Koetsier: Yeah.
Nick Hobbs: And what that means is that maps very well to subscription-oriented businesses. That if I’m going to ask you, you have to take out your wallet and give me your credit card in order to start using this, we have to have immediately useful value. Immediately obvious value.
What it works very poorly for are things like freemium services, where like the idea is we kind of lure you in because it’s very easy to use, it’s easy to get started, and then over time you use it more and more. You like it more and more, and then eventually, because it’s this freemium service, we’ll start charging you by in-app purchases or something like that.
I think that is really hard to make shine in a world where the operating system says the apps that win are the ones that have immediate and obvious value.
John Koetsier: Mm-hmm.
Nick Hobbs: And so when I look at gaming, I think what we’ll see is like a higher or more success in the higher quality content, the higher quality games. And it will be harder to get somebody addicted to a free download game that they then, you know, pay for out of frustration.
So I think that that will be a trend, and actually I think there are some other trends in gaming as well, that will push us more in that direction and away from kind of the old-school freemium models.
John Koetsier: Yeah. So I want to get to a few other categories as well. I want to look at social. You brought up social and it’s kind of — I don’t want to say near and dear to my heart [laughter] — it is very central to a lot of the issues that we’re facing today.
And you know, just be real honest and really personal here … three days ago I think it was, I was on the phone. I call my mom every day, she’s 85, and she had a horrible day because she got on Facebook and she watched some things which I consider to be extremely biased versions of reality, and the world is going down the toilet and everything is horrible and awful and evil and wrong.
And she’s 85 and having a horrible day in thinking that things are not going to get better.
That’s one of the challenges that we have with social these days, because as we see in The Social Dilemma, as we talked about already, you start going down a bit of a rabbit hole, you start — algorithms suggest other things. This can happen on Facebook. This can happen on YouTube. Other places like that, the algorithm starts suggesting things, you see more of what you engage with, and then you get more interested deeper into that, and you get radicalized potentially, other things like that as well.
How is this new operating system, do you think, how’s that going to collide with what we’ve seen and the algorithm-based reality bubble situation that we’re in?
Nick Hobbs: Yeah. I mean, it’s a really great question and it’s also one that’s near and dear to our hearts.
A huge part of the reason that we started Brief is that we think that our information ecosystem and our public dialogue it’s just a huge mess. And in large part, it’s a huge mess because technology has stopped helping us and started hurting us, right?
Like they’ve made it very easy to spread outrage and very hard to have good conversations.
And we have a feature in our app that allows anybody who’s a subscriber to text our newsroom. And so we get a lot of questions, and a lot of times where people will ask us to fact check things that they found on Facebook. Or a lot of times where people are wildly misinformed and so they will reach out to us and they’ll say like, ‘We think you got this wrong because I saw this thing on Facebook and it said that so-and-so is Satan and you’re reporting that they’re not.’
And the thing that makes me very hopeful for the future is even these people that come in like really riled up and really certain that this strange thing is true, with a short conversation with one of our editors, they actually come around. They’re not stuck in there. They just want to be heard and they want somebody to take the time to help explain why we believe what we believe.
John Koetsier: Mm-hmm.
Nick Hobbs: And so when we talk about the changes in iOS 14 and what is that going to do for companies like us, versus companies like Facebook. And what does that mean about kind of the way we get information and the way that we talk to each other …
I think by putting in this layer … that says, we’re not going to let you directly plug into a user’s brain, right, like we’re not going to let you put the app icon on the home screen and badge it red and get them to come in.
You have to explain to them, like this is why I should be on your home screen. You have to make a widget, you have to put it in the gallery, you have to say this is the use case. And I have to convince you that it’s worth putting on your home screen.
I think that’s going to mean you’re going to have fewer people who are choosing to opt in to putting outrage on their home screen and more people choosing to opt in to putting like high quality information that helps them throughout the day on their home screen.
John Koetsier: Really really interesting. And we’ve seen, in a sense, if what we’re seeing here is accurate, then iOS 14 is a continuation of a path that Apple’s been on for a little while actually.
Because we saw, for instance, when push notifications came out, everybody jumped on push notifications — notify, notify, notify.
Nick Hobbs: Yeah.
John Koetsier: Bing, get me in my app, you know, get your eyeballs here, monetize, show ads, those sorts of things. And over time people started turning off of that, but also over time, iOS started saying, ‘Hey, you know, you’re not reacting to those notifications from that app anymore, turn them off.’
Nick Hobbs: Yeah, totally.
John Koetsier: And so we’re seeing kind of the operating system maybe try and protect us from some of that, but also protect us from ourselves because we’re so easily misled to pop in and to join the outrage factory.
Nick Hobbs: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, I couldn’t agree more. And I think honestly, as a user of an iPhone, I look forward to that future.
Like it’s hard for me on my own to fight every engineer at Facebook, right? There are lots of them, they’re very smart people, they’re very good at what they do, and a lot of them, their job is to get me to spend more time on Facebook.
And the only way that we’re going to, like, that you have a fighting chance in winning that battle is if more software companies try to help you live the life that you want to live.
And I think Apple is one of those companies that’s trying to say we know that there is more to life than scrolling through Facebook.
And we know that even though you do that, that doesn’t mean that the interpretation that Facebook takes, which is like, ‘You’re here, you must love it.’ Like that’s not how humans work, right? We do all kinds of things that we don’t want to do. It is not our revealed preferences are our only preferences. And so having companies who are willing to stand up and help you, and fight for that, I think is really valuable.
And so I’m excited about the changes that you mentioned and the changes that we’re seeing in iOS 14 and I’m really excited to see where the platform goes in the future.
John Koetsier: Excellent. Excellent. Well, it’s been a wonderful conversation. It’s an interesting thing to consider what is going to work in iOS 14, what is not going to work. Obviously, the platform can only exert so much pressure. You can do what you want to do with it. You can choose to see all the notifications, you can choose to drag icons onto your home screen.
It’ll be interesting to me to see how the conversion happens as you upgrade to iOS 14, what do you do. I decided to go about 80% in and I previously had I think it was about six or seven screens of icons…
Nick Hobbs: Yeah, totally.
John Koetsier: …and some of those had multiple folders. And I just kind of went through a little bit ruthlessly and I went down to one. And so now I’ve got sort of three experiences. I’ve got widgets, right. I’ve got my standard traditional icon and folder list. And I’ve got the App Library and I’m going to see over time, will I default more and more to the App Library? How will that work?
And also as Siri gets more involved, will it be more useful to just pull up my phone and say, ‘Hey, Siri, open Twitter’ or something like that, right… and, you know, and freak out everybody I’m in the room with. In any case, this has been really, really interesting. Anything else to share before we close?
Nick Hobbs: You know, if people are liking what we’re working on, if you want to live in a future where you have less information instead of information overload, I’d encourage you to check out Brief. You can get it just by going to briefbeta.com. And if you do, feel free to hit me up on Twitter if there are things that we can make better, because at the end of the day, what we’re most passionate about is just helping people have a really great news experience, and anything that we can do to make that better we want to hear.
John Koetsier: And I’m pretty sure I heard Nick made a commitment that his editors will talk to any of your crazy uncles or aunts.
Nick Hobbs: It’s true. Send them our way. We really do actually, some of the best days we have are when we can take somebody from that bucket of insanity and like help them back towards reality. So, yeah, you know, refer for all the crazy aunts, uncles, grandparents, parents, children … give us all of them.
John Koetsier: Excellent. Nick, thank you so much for being on the show.
Nick Hobbs: Yeah, absolutely. Thanks for having me, John.
John Koetsier: It’s a real pleasure. For everybody else, thank you for joining us on TechFirst. My name is John Koetsier. Really appreciate you watching, subscribing. You’ll be able to get a full transcript of this podcast in a few days at JohnKoetsier.com. The full video will be available on YouTube and the story will show up on Forbes as well.
Thank you for joining, maybe share with a friend. Until next time … this is John Koetsier with TechFirst.
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