Under the Radar

96: Risky Business


00:00:00   Welcome to Under the Radar, a show about independent iOS app development.

00:00:04   I'm Mark Guarmant.

00:00:05   And I'm David Smith.

00:00:06   Under the Radar is never longer than 30 minutes, so let's get started.

00:00:10   So this week we wanted to talk about a little bit of a current event and then brought it

00:00:13   into a general topic.

00:00:14   The current event is that the third-party YouTube client ProTube was removed from the

00:00:21   App Store.

00:00:22   Apple basically forced it out on Google's request because it was violating the YouTube

00:00:27   terms of service apparently.

00:00:29   And I want to talk about some of that and then brought that into the topic of generally

00:00:35   developing apps that rely on other big services or that are not quite, that are kind of on

00:00:41   the edge of what's considered okay or what might be allowed or what might be legal.

00:00:46   The ProTube app specifically, it was a third-party YouTube app for iOS and it had great reviews.

00:00:55   I'm pretty sure MacStories did a big review on it once.

00:00:58   That's where I heard of it first.

00:01:00   And it had many YouTube Pro user features, many features that people want out of YouTube

00:01:06   app that the main app either didn't or wouldn't offer.

00:01:10   Different playback speeds and originally it offered downloading for offline.

00:01:15   YouTube forced them to remove that a long time ago.

00:01:17   It offered things like stripping out the audio and just playing the audio and not having

00:01:21   to rely on videos so it could be played in the background.

00:01:24   Things like that that the official app didn't offer for a long time or if ever.

00:01:29   Things like picture-in-picture support on the iPad, the official app made you buy YouTube

00:01:32   Red to do.

00:01:34   So you can kind of see why the official app and why YouTube might not have wanted this

00:01:39   to happen.

00:01:41   But there's quite a market to be had in doing things that people want that like the man

00:01:47   won't let them do.

00:01:49   ProTube existed in this market.

00:01:51   This is something that I have a little bit of experience with.

00:01:54   Ultimately though I try to stay away from this these days.

00:01:58   A lot of developers try to build their business on a third party API or app of some sort.

00:02:04   Whether it's YouTube or a social network like Twitter clients or other such things.

00:02:12   I get a lot of requests for me to open up an overcast API so people could make third

00:02:16   party clients.

00:02:18   There was a brief time in the internet where this seemed like an okay business model.

00:02:24   I'd say around like 2004 or so.

00:02:27   Where all the web services were opening up public APIs that you could basically do whatever

00:02:32   you wanted with and access wasn't controlled at all.

00:02:36   So anybody could write clients that did pretty much anything.

00:02:39   This was considered like a big part of Web 2.0 for a little while.

00:02:45   Then everything started getting locked down and what was public became private.

00:02:51   What was free became controlled and locked out.

00:02:56   More recently in more recent apps and services that have taken off they either haven't

00:03:00   had an API at all or like in the case of Instagram there is an API but it's extraordinarily

00:03:07   limited or it might just be discontinued at any point or you can't do what you really

00:03:12   want to do, what most people would really want to do with such an API.

00:03:18   There's a case to be made.

00:03:20   There is lots of demand for apps that live in this gray area that do things that a service

00:03:27   might not want or even if it has a public API that for the moment you're doing things

00:03:34   that the API allows there is a big market there because usually if you've heard of

00:03:38   these services they're pretty big.

00:03:39   They have a lot of users and everybody wants something to enhance their favorite service

00:03:44   or to make it easier to use or whatever else.

00:03:47   So it seems like there's a business there or there's a market there rather but trying

00:03:54   to build an entire business in a situation like that where there is this massive fundamental

00:04:00   dependency that your app has on someone else's service, that I think is increasingly unwise

00:04:09   over time.

00:04:11   And that's not to say that nobody should ever do it but it certainly should I think

00:04:17   give you pause before you invest heavily into it.

00:04:20   So for instance in the case of ProTube like I'm pretty sure that was somebody's full

00:04:24   time job or at least that was like that was their primary app that they made and I believe

00:04:31   the author even said on the blog post that it did pretty well for a while and it had

00:04:34   lots of users.

00:04:37   I personally at this point in my life I cannot imagine having my app be 100% dependent on

00:04:45   someone else's service.

00:04:47   Now in the app store we are always 100% dependent on Apple.

00:04:51   That is one dependency we always have is that well Apple at any time could kick us out of

00:04:55   the app store.

00:04:57   But in general if you align your incentives with Apple's or at least if you avoid stepping

00:05:04   on their feet there's not much reason for Apple to remove it from the app store.

00:05:08   If you just have some regular app why would Apple remove it?

00:05:12   That would be a huge PR risk to them, maybe even a legal risk if you're big enough.

00:05:18   The fact is Apple does not want to go around removing apps for no reason.

00:05:22   So I'm not worried with Overcast I'm not worried that Apple is going to come along

00:05:27   and all of a sudden say you know what podcast apps are now illegal again in the app store

00:05:32   and therefore you have to leave.

00:05:34   I don't stay awake at night thinking about that because I think it's incredibly unlikely

00:05:38   because there's not much reason for Apple to ever do that and that would be too much

00:05:44   downside for them compared to whatever little upside there might be.

00:05:48   But if you're basing your entire app on something like Twitter or YouTube or Facebook,

00:05:54   some other big service like that, you are building a business in someone else's property.

00:06:03   They can do whatever they want and they don't have the kind of neutral incentive collection

00:06:10   that Apple has in that kind of scenario.

00:06:13   If you're building a Twitter app you're competing with Twitter and their own app using

00:06:18   their own service and their own API to do it.

00:06:21   So they are not going to be too keen on that.

00:06:24   And even if one of these services has an API where they say that they're okay with something

00:06:29   one day, the next day that could change, the next year that could change.

00:06:33   They might have to boost their metrics and your app might be taking away their metrics.

00:06:37   They might get new leadership that wants to take the company in a different direction

00:06:41   or their investors might force the company to take a different direction.

00:06:44   They might need to make changes to the product and the API that your app relies on is getting

00:06:50   in the way of that progress.

00:06:52   There's all sorts of reasons why most companies and apps and services don't really need

00:06:59   to let you build apps on them and it usually is actually against their best interest these

00:07:04   days to do that and therefore it is unwise to make your business rely on that.

00:07:12   And so in the case of Protube and YouTube, it is really a shame that this great app that

00:07:20   had a lot of big fans and had really been critically acclaimed, it's a shame that

00:07:26   app is now gone because YouTube decided they had enough and they made Apple take it down.

00:07:33   And by the way, I don't think Apple had any choice in the matter.

00:07:36   That's a simple legal request thing and Apple does not need to put their neck out for that.

00:07:42   That's not worth it for them.

00:07:43   So this was really, you know, if you want to be mad at somebody about this, be mad at

00:07:47   YouTube, not Apple.

00:07:51   It's a shame this app is gone but at the same time it was never on solid ground.

00:07:57   It was never guaranteed to exist forever.

00:08:01   The author of it had no right to, like no guaranteed right that it would exist forever

00:08:07   because it was always from the beginning built upon YouTube's property using YouTube's

00:08:14   service, doing things that YouTube really probably didn't want anybody to do and,

00:08:19   you know, living on the edge.

00:08:21   And that really, really sucks for the developer that it's now gone and that that business

00:08:27   just disappeared.

00:08:28   But on some level that's just the risk you take when you live on the edge like that.

00:08:31   Like when you live in these gray areas, it could disappear at any moment.

00:08:37   And so I'm not saying that you should necessarily never build an app like that but you should

00:08:44   expect that.

00:08:45   You know, you should go into it knowing that massive risk, knowing that at any time the

00:08:50   ground could shift below you and your entire app could just be gone.

00:08:56   Like in the snap of fingers, like it's just gone.

00:09:00   And so how much do you want to invest in that?

00:09:02   How much do you want to rely on that?

00:09:03   How much do you want to plan for the future of this business when that could happen at

00:09:07   any moment?

00:09:08   - Yeah, it's so tough too 'cause it's like I feel at a personal level, I feel really

00:09:13   bad for this developer.

00:09:14   I think it's Jonas Gessner, I think is his name.

00:09:16   Like I have been in the position of making an app, having it be successful and then having

00:09:22   it sort of taken out of the store.

00:09:26   Thankfully for me that was many years ago when the app store was a slightly different

00:09:29   place.

00:09:30   And so like eventually I was able to get it back in and so on.

00:09:33   Like that's a long story for another day but like I have been in this exact position and

00:09:37   I know how this feels and it feels awful.

00:09:41   So at a personal level, it's very, very sympathetic to how frustrating this must be.

00:09:47   But it is, yeah, the thing that most fundamentally when I think about these types of apps, like

00:09:53   any time there's a popular service, like there is a built-in audience.

00:09:57   And so building applications to cater to that audience makes sense because it's like if

00:10:04   you wanted to create your own video sharing viewing platform that hosts all the content

00:10:14   and has video creators publish your videos on your platform, et cetera, like that is

00:10:18   completely insurmountable.

00:10:20   So piggybacking on top of a big popular, probably the most popular video service in the world,

00:10:26   YouTube makes a lot of sense.

00:10:29   But inherent in that is like what you are in some ways doing is you're making money

00:10:37   off their service, off their costs.

00:10:39   Like YouTube is paying all the infrastructure costs.

00:10:41   YouTube is paying all of the bandwidth costs for hosting this video.

00:10:46   And then they don't have a mechanism to make money from that.

00:10:52   YouTube makes most of its money from its advertising or its YouTube-read subscription service,

00:10:59   both of which are things that any third-party client isn't really showing to them.

00:11:04   I mean, it's theoretically possible that YouTube could make a mechanism by which developers

00:11:10   pay for the use of the API.

00:11:12   But in general, I don't think that's the case.

00:11:14   And so you're always in this kind of tricky position where you're making money off someone

00:11:19   else's work in a certain way, in a very helpful, useful way.

00:11:24   But it's a really tenuous thing because that money that you are able to bring in, that

00:11:28   business that exists, in many ways belongs to YouTube.

00:11:35   They're creating the opportunity for doing that.

00:11:38   They're choosing not to necessarily explore and exploit that themselves.

00:11:43   They're not making the YouTube Pro app that would do all of these things, and they may

00:11:49   have reasons for doing that.

00:11:51   And they could be-- who knows what that is?

00:11:55   Maybe they don't want a lot of apps to exist that have background audio playback because

00:12:02   then they get in trouble with music labels, who then people are just using YouTube as

00:12:09   a music streaming service.

00:12:10   And that creates legal issues or problems for them.

00:12:12   And so they don't want to go down that road.

00:12:14   And sometimes they may want to let that exist.

00:12:20   It reminds me, in many ways, a lot of the early days of Twitter, where part of what

00:12:27   made it catch and fueled its initial growth, I think, was their openness of third-party

00:12:35   clients because it essentially gave them this massive free developer effort that they didn't

00:12:42   have to directly pay for.

00:12:43   They just paid for the infrastructure.

00:12:45   But there was a lot of this creativity and innovation that happened around their platform

00:12:49   that they didn't have to manage and direct.

00:12:51   They could just let 1,000 flowers bloom, and then ultimately they picked the most successful

00:12:58   flower.

00:12:59   They purchased Tweedy and made that the official client.

00:13:04   And then now that that phase has happened, increasingly they are shutting that down.

00:13:12   And there's a few players who make third-party Twitter apps now, but largely it's this

00:13:18   grandfathered-in, not really supported or encouraged kind of thing.

00:13:24   And in some ways that's great.

00:13:25   If you happened to-- that's the best possible scenario, probably, that if you make this

00:13:31   kind of dependent service, where ultimately you're just kind of grandfathered in and you

00:13:37   can just kind of exist and you have this moat of protection around you because no one else

00:13:40   can make these apps anymore, and so you're the only one.

00:13:44   So that's awesome.

00:13:45   But probably much more likely is what's happening here, where they just say, you know, this

00:13:51   is not something we want to do.

00:13:53   And because you're sort of operating at our pleasure, like at any point we can just turn

00:13:59   this off, they will just turn it off.

00:14:03   And while at some point maybe you can find crazy technical solutions to work around that

00:14:07   and things where you're not-- it's not an official API, it's an unofficial API, or you're

00:14:14   posing as the official client.

00:14:15   There's all kinds of crazy technical things.

00:14:17   But ultimately, especially because we exist in the App Store environment, where YouTube

00:14:22   can just go to Apple and say, this developer is essentially violating our terms of service,

00:14:28   is doing illicit things, we need you to take them down, you'll get taken down.

00:14:33   It's not a world where that might exist.

00:14:36   And so it's unfortunate that this happens.

00:14:40   I feel really bad for the people involved in the actual situation, both the developers

00:14:45   as well as the users.

00:14:46   But yeah, it's always so tenuous.

00:14:49   And it's something that-- I think we'll get into this a bit more later on, too-- but these

00:14:54   types of opportunities, when they appear, they look so enticing because the audience

00:14:59   of the platform is so big and the user base is so large that you look at something like--

00:15:04   like when I think of these types of things, and I've thought about making YouTube-related

00:15:07   apps and content and features, it's like the universe of-- there's probably hundreds of

00:15:13   millions if not billions of people who use YouTube, and you start to play that game of

00:15:18   like, well, what if I could only get like a tenth of 1% of those people to download

00:15:22   my app?

00:15:23   And that's huge.

00:15:24   And it's like, well, if you did get to do that, if you did have an app that had a lot

00:15:29   of success, almost necessarily, the bigger you get, the more trouble you will have.

00:15:37   And as a business, that sounds kind of fundamentally problematic, that most of us, when we were

00:15:44   setting out to build something, we wanted to have the ability to grow steadily over

00:15:49   time.

00:15:50   Whereas in a situation like with almost all these types of apps, the bigger your app gets,

00:15:55   the more likely it is that the service that you're reliant on is either going to become

00:16:00   suspicious or concerned about you.

00:16:04   And maybe on the upside, eventually that would lead to something like an acquisition, which

00:16:07   is like, I guess, the best version of this.

00:16:09   If YouTube had come along and said, hey, we're going to acquire the Protube app and gain

00:16:18   from the expertise and the experience of this developer, that would be the happy ending.

00:16:23   But there's no guarantees of a happy ending in something like this.

00:16:26   Also, keep in mind, even in that scenario where they acquire you, think about the leverage

00:16:33   that they have in that situation versus the leverage you have in that situation.

00:16:37   They can bring you into the room and say, look, you can come work for us for whatever

00:16:40   amount of money we're going to offer you, which probably doesn't need to be that much

00:16:43   because of what we're about to say, or we're going to shut you down.

00:16:47   That's it.

00:16:48   We're going to cut off your API access, or you can come work for us.

00:16:50   You don't have a lot of leverage in that negotiation.

00:16:53   They have all the power.

00:16:54   So even that is not a great outcome.

00:16:56   >> Especially, too, if you're implementing features that aren't things that are technically

00:17:03   difficult in the sense of like Twitter bought Tweety because Lauren Brikter is a genius

00:17:10   and was doing things like he invented pull to refresh, and he was doing crazy iOS performance

00:17:16   stuff in a way that at the time very few people could touch.

00:17:20   And so his leverage wasn't that he was doing things that Twitter just couldn't recreate,

00:17:27   whereas in this case, it becomes much trickier and your position would definitely be much

00:17:32   weaker where it's things that the content provider or the platform owner is consciously

00:17:38   choosing not to implement.

00:17:41   Your leverage goes down dramatically.

00:17:45   I think we see a lot of younger developers falling into the trap of assuming that they

00:17:51   can build an app on this kind of thing and that they'll be okay or that will be okay.

00:17:58   Some of that just comes with experience of whether you trust that kind of stuff or not.

00:18:02   But also, I feel like younger developers have -- I'm sorry if this is insulting.

00:18:07   I don't mean it to be.

00:18:09   They don't often distinguish well between what's a public good on the Internet and what's

00:18:13   a private service, or you make assumptions about the private services that they are maybe

00:18:19   more publicly available or more publicly open or that you have more rights than you actually

00:18:24   have.

00:18:26   And this is one of the reasons why all us olds talk about things like the open web and

00:18:32   open protocols and open formats, decentralization, because so much of the Internet now is privatized,

00:18:42   so much of usage of metrics, of time spent is happening under the complete control of

00:18:50   one of a handful of web giants that there's almost nothing public left that a lot of people

00:18:57   think about and use all the time and think about every day.

00:19:01   Almost all usage is in Facebook or Google does all the searches and YouTube does all

00:19:07   the video.

00:19:09   So if you actually want to try to build something lasting, build it on open platforms and open

00:19:15   standards and in open places where you can be the business.

00:19:18   You can be the service that's in control.

00:19:21   This is one of the reasons I like podcasting so much because Apple has some role in it

00:19:25   but not actually a very major one anymore.

00:19:28   And so my main dependency on Apple is literally just the App Store.

00:19:31   If the iTunes API shut down tomorrow, I'd be totally fine.

00:19:34   So when you're choosing what to do, build in open spaces.

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00:21:42   So related to this type of, this discussion of ProTube and relying on external services,

00:21:49   I think an interesting place to wrap up might be to also talk a little bit about exploiting

00:21:55   developer opportunities in this kind of, seeing an opportunity, seeing a niche that exists

00:22:03   and then sort of trying to build an app inside of that.

00:22:07   Because often I feel like that is the, especially as a smaller developer, one man, one, two,

00:22:13   three person team, whatever, we are best able to thrive and flourish in these kind of small

00:22:21   spaces that may be too small for a larger company to want to go after.

00:22:29   Or maybe you have the ability to get in there right away.

00:22:32   Like I've taken advantage of this many times myself where a new API is introduced in iOS

00:22:39   or watchOS and I immediately jump on it and kind of dive in there to take advantage of

00:22:44   it.

00:22:46   And it's interesting because I feel like in some ways this is what this app was doing,

00:22:52   but in others it's not.

00:22:55   And I think maybe it's interesting to kind of differentiate between the types of opportunities

00:22:59   that are likely going to be sustainable down the road and those, these types of opportunities

00:23:06   that are tenuous and exist sort of somewhat more transiently.

00:23:13   It isn't necessarily that one, you should only ever pursue the first and ignore the

00:23:17   second because there are certainly opportunities I'm sure where it's like making an app

00:23:22   that is useful or exists solely for a few weeks or a few months could potentially be

00:23:29   worth doing.

00:23:30   I mean, there's been numerous of these I feel like that they come up in the App Store.

00:23:35   Like when the iPods first came out, there was a couple of apps that day where iPod found

00:23:40   Finders before Apple introduced Find My iPod into the Find My Friends app.

00:23:45   AirPods.

00:23:46   Yeah, sorry, sorry, the AirPods.

00:23:50   And those Find My AirPods apps exist in this kind of tenuous space that I don't, I mean

00:23:56   ultimately I think a lot of them were pulled from the App Store, so maybe they didn't

00:23:59   actually end up being financially viable in that sense.

00:24:02   But that kind of an opportunity where it's like here's this thing that exists, it may

00:24:07   have a very short-lived lifespan, but then you can go in, you can take advantage of it,

00:24:13   you potentially don't put in a massive amount of development resources into it, and then

00:24:17   you move on.

00:24:18   That's interesting and that's potentially useful in a lot of cases.

00:24:23   Versus, I think it's keeping in mind that there are other opportunities that are just

00:24:27   these building an app that is filling a space that is too small for someone, it's too

00:24:36   small for a big competitor to come in and try and compete with you with, and just surviving

00:24:42   in there and taking advantage of that space.

00:24:45   I mean I think of some of these, and for some reason I think I'm on the Mac a lot more

00:24:50   about these, but there's so many of these little tools, these little utilities that

00:24:56   exist to solve a little annoyance or fix something that's, doing window management is a common

00:25:03   example of something on the Mac maybe, where you're solving this little problem that theoretically

00:25:09   Apple could one day come along and Sherlock you.

00:25:11   And usually that is the big risk for these kinds of apps, where you have some bigger

00:25:17   person will eventually come along and slurp up that space.

00:25:21   But you can often have a sustainable business for a long time.

00:25:25   Or you can be in this kind of a situation where maybe other people aren't going after

00:25:30   it, the opportunity, because it's kind of dubious or kind of tenuous as to whether it's

00:25:35   something that's allowed.

00:25:37   But I don't know, I think it's worth just considering.

00:25:40   And probably the overall lesson is before you, it's so easy as a developer I think

00:25:46   to start down the road of development when you see an opportunity like that, to just

00:25:50   go in and do it and worry about, like you see this technical opportunity and you go

00:25:55   and try and solve it.

00:25:57   But it's probably the important thing is, or that I've learned from my experience is to take

00:26:00   two or three steps back and be like, what is this likely going to look like down the

00:26:05   road?

00:26:06   Is this an app that I'm going to want to maintain?

00:26:09   Is this an app that I think would make a sustainable business?

00:26:12   Do I think, what is the likelihood of this being Sherlock down the road?

00:26:17   I mean, actually this very summer, I had a couple of ideas for apps related to iPad multitasking

00:26:23   and some of the new changes there.

00:26:24   And I think ultimately I've decided I'm not going to ultimately ship them because the more

00:26:29   I looked at it and the more I decided like I'm solving this very niche narrow problem

00:26:36   that I think will exist for at most a year, probably less.

00:26:41   That I think there's these little rough edges that Apple will likely sand down over the

00:26:45   next couple of point releases.

00:26:48   And do I really want to go through the effort of building out a fully featured app and then

00:26:53   putting it out and supporting it and maintaining it and having this sort of this expectation

00:26:58   that then that if Apple solves it, that half solves it or makes it worse, then like it's

00:27:03   becomes this thing that I need to manage.

00:27:04   And I just decided, you know, it's probably not worth it.

00:27:07   And I think doing that exercise is something I didn't used to do.

00:27:11   And so I just wanted to mention it as something to encourage everyone else to, whenever you

00:27:14   see these little opportunities, make sure we're being thoughtful about if it's a good

00:27:20   thing that is going to come back to benefit us in the future.

00:27:24   And if it's not, go into it with eyes open saying like, I'm making this app that I expect

00:27:28   to sell for a few weeks or a few months and that's okay.

00:27:32   And if it was a big flash and a big fall, that's fine.

00:27:36   Oh yeah, I mean, I have failed to learn this lesson so many times.

00:27:41   I made a magazine, then realized I didn't like running a magazine.

00:27:44   I made an ad blocker, then realized it's a terrible business I didn't want to be in.

00:27:47   I have made that mistake so many times of like being on the, and especially like in

00:27:53   the case of the ad blocker and even to some degree Instapaper, when you are kind of like

00:27:57   living on the edge of what might be considered legal with copyright or things like copyright,

00:28:04   there's a huge market of people who want that kind of thing.

00:28:08   And you can build a business there, but it's like building a business on the edge of a

00:28:14   volcano.

00:28:15   It is a very, very high risk and you never know like what could blow up in your face

00:28:19   and really cause problems for you.

00:28:21   I mean, people who made ad blockers were getting sued like not that long after I stopped making

00:28:26   mine.

00:28:27   And I just narrowly dodged that risk.

00:28:30   So again, it's like there's a business to be had here, but do you want that business?

00:28:36   Are you willing to accept the risks of that and how long is that gonna be a business and

00:28:41   how much that is in your control?

00:28:42   - Yeah, and I think too, it's the maturity of being okay with missing out is ultimately

00:28:49   what I think it came down for that like I had to grow as a person to the point that

00:28:53   I could say, if I don't do this and someone else does, I need to be okay with the fact

00:28:59   that they may have a good run or it could be successful and not play the like, what

00:29:04   if I had done it, if only I had done it kind of a game, 'cause ultimately that's just gonna

00:29:07   drive you crazy.

00:29:08   Like you have to be like make an informed decision, give it some thought and then just

00:29:13   be able to be like, you know, like that was the choice I made and live with that rather

00:29:17   than just sort of making these choices out of just the fear of potentially missing out

00:29:20   down the road.

00:29:21   Like that's no way to build a business or to make choices in ways that are just gonna

00:29:26   be sustainable for your mental health.

00:29:30   - Thanks for listening everybody and we'll talk to you next week.

00:29:33   - Bye.

00:29:34   [