I’m going out on a limb, but a fairly stout one: Like Azeem, I think Apple bought Topsy for its search chops. But Azeem, who I admire greatly, says Topsy could become the search engine “for iOS… to index both the social Web, but also the best bits of the Web that power Siri and Apple Maps, [and] reduce the reliance on Google and reduce the flow of advertising dollars to the big G.” Certainly possible, but I don’t think Apple bought Topsy for its ability to search the web, or even for its trove of Twitter data. That might be a nice bonus, but I don’t think it’s the bogey.* Others have written that Topsy might be used to improve Apple’s iTunes/app search, but again, I think that’s not thinking big enough.
No, Apple most likely bought Topsy because Topsy has the infrastructure to address one of Apple’s biggest problems: the iOS interface. Let’s face it, iOS (and the app-based interface in general) is slowly becoming awful. It’s like the web before good search showed up. To move to the next level, Apple needs a way to improve how its customers interact with iOS. Topsy will help them get there. Also, I think Twitter is happy that Apple bought Topsy – but more on that later.
Let me explain. First, my statement that iOS is “becoming awful.” Faithful readers know I’m not a fan of iOS. I switched to Android almost two years ago, and I’ve never looked back. But it’s not as if the Android interface is much better – I just like its chances of developing into something more powerful down the line. In the past few years, I’ve written several posts about the kind of interface I believe needs to emerge across mobile (which until last year, Apple pretty much dominated). Given my obsession with the topic, it’s probably no secret that I view mobile’s biggest problem boils down to one of search.
In Apple Won’t Build a (Web) Search Engine and Of Course Apple Is Going to Do Search, I argued that Apple must get into the “app search” game. Just as web search became the coin of the web realm, app search will be next. It won’t look like web search, I argued, but at its core, it’s quite similar.
That was three years ago, right after Apple bought Siri, launched iAds, and was relentlessly touting the growth of its app ecosystem. I was certain Apple was going to figure out a way to create value above the level of a particular app, using all that tasty data it had within its restrictive walled garden to build the next generation iOS interface.
But so far, Apple has failed to innovate inside its own ecosystem (unless you count minimalist icons and bright base colors as innovation). Three years later, we’re still stuck in a user interface of app-filled screens, most of which we never use, each disconnected from the other save for the fact they happen to reside on your phone, possibly right next to each other, but otherwise unaware of the value they might reap should they magically start sharing links and data with each other. (You know, the way the web works.)
This has to change.
Google knows it, which is why I find Google Now so fascinating. Apple knows it too – the days of home screens littered with app icons are numbered. What will replace it?
My guess is some kind of intelligent, search-driven interface that “understands” you, based on the intent you signal through your use of all kinds of apps – including browser apps, of course, as well as true search apps like Siri (or Google Now). This new kind of interface responds to your voice as well as your location, your history, and anything else you might willingly (or unwittingly) feed it. It will strive to always put the very thing you need at your fingertips – something that simply isn’t possible without understanding your interactions as the equivalent of …. well, a personal interest graph.
And to do that, Apple needs a powerful engine, the kind of engine that, say, has been hard at work understanding a massive corpus of interest data for, say, six or so years. Something like Topsy.
My prediction: Apple doesn’t really care about Twitter data. The more I think about it, the more I’d wager that Twitter most likely blessed Apple’s purchase – and why not. With its newfound post-IPO billions, Twitter could have easily forced Topsy’s price well past $200 million. But Twitter is probably thrilled that Apple bought Topsy – Apple just took out a company that Twitter eventually would have had to either buy or kill. Now, Twitter is free to build enterprise value on top of its own data, as well it should, and Apple has a team of engineers who I’m guessing can’t wait to get their hands on a new kind of tweet stream – all that structured data captured, but not leveraged, off your mobile phone. It’s a win win win – if I’m right. Apple gets the tech and talent to build the guts of its next interface, consumers get a better OS, and Twitter gets to keep its cash and eliminate a potential competitor to boot.
Smart move, Apple. I hope I’m right.
*For the record, I spoke to no one at Twitter or Apple before I wrote this. It’s all my own brand of pure speculation.