A New Era of Frankensoftware Is Upon Us

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Last week’s announcement that Apple intends to make it easy for developers to create Mac variants of iPhone apps became something of a matter of semantics. Would it ever merge the two operating systems? Are the apps being ported to macOS? They’re certainly not being emulated.

But Apple’s move signals a larger trend in consumer tech. Big-name device makers are looking closely at the technologies running on their most successful hardware offerings and finding ways to incorporate that magic into the rest of their products. The shift is driven partly by the popularity of mobile apps and touchscreens, industry insiders say, but also by emerging technologies like voice assistants. Apple is not the only company doing this; Google and Microsoft have stirred their pots. Even Amazon’s new Fire TV Cube borrows elements of its interface from the Amazon Echo Show to create a product with a strange (but maybe useful) mix of features designed with a “voice first” ethos.

In their earliest implementations, these Frankensoftware solutions can be confusing or downright janky. Mobile app windows running on your computer might not size properly, interactions feel forced, and your tablet or TV screen might actually have to switch between user interfaces while you’re tapping or barking. (Remember Windows 8?)

But these software experiments also hold the promise of being able to use the apps or input methods you want, whenever you want to use them. And it could potentially make things a lot easier for developers, who have often had to build separate versions of their apps for each new platform as it emerges.

Droided Up

Apple’s move to put mobile apps on macOS grabbed headlines last week, but Google has been running Android apps on Chromebooks for two years now. This is especially notable when you consider Chromebooks were originally developed to just run web apps in a browser. Last month, Google took its software a step further by allowing Linux apps to run on Chrome OS, which previously only worked if you hacked your Chromebook with specialized tools.

Kan Liu, a 12-year Google veteran and senior director of product management for Chrome OS, tells me over the phone that enabling Linux apps was really aimed at “power users”: People who work in coding environments like Visual Studio. But getting Android apps onto Chrome OS was part of a much broader strategy. “For users who were heavily investing in our mobile ecosystem, we wanted to enable those users to experience the same apps and functionality,” Liu says. “And from a market perspective, Chromebooks have come a long way in a short time.”

For anyone who remembers the earliest days of Android apps on Chrome OS, that “same apps and functionality” part might have seemed like a stretch. While some Android apps on Chrome OS supported larger interfaces, most just looked like enlarged phone apps. There weren’t many multitasking options. Other apps in the Google Play store came with the message that your Chrome OS device wasn’t compatible with the app.

But Google says it’s improved the experience over time, building features like window management directly into the Chrome OS framework. “Now, if you’re a developer, you automatically get support for things like multi-windows,” Liu says. And for “end users” (people who buy Chromebooks) that should in theory mean the best of both worlds: mobile apps running on something built like a laptop.

Speakin’ Out

Amazon’s newest Fire TV product is another example of Frankensoftware, although in this case the catalyst is voice technology, not touchscreens. The new Fire TV Cube has a microphone array, like Amazon’s tubular Echo gadgets, so you can command Alexa to turn on your TV or change programs. But while the Fire TV Cube runs on Fire OS, Amazon’s well-known operating system, it has the user interface of the Amazon Echo Show, another type of Echo gadget.

Amazon executive Sandeep Gupta said during a recent demo that the idea behind the Cube is to “really enable voice experience in a way that makes sense and actually highlights the use of voice,” and that Amazon effectively used the Echo Show display as a blueprint for how that voice-first approach would work on a TV set. Here’s the interesting part, though: once you stop using your voice and switch back to the ol’ remote, your Echo Show-like interface on the screen will change back to the old Fire TV interface.

It’s hard to say how well all this actually works—or whether the world is ready for voice-first entertainment queries—without using the Cube for a while (and I haven’t received a test unit yet). But if it does turn out to be a success, then a single piece of hardware can support apps across multiple interfaces: apps for the voice-first Fire TV; apps for a remote-controlled Fire TV; and voice apps, or “skills,” from the Echo.

Merge Ahead

This commingling of software is also supposed to provide benefits not just to the people who use the apps, but to the people who make them as well. “We don’t always necessarily think in terms of a specific device or not,” Google’s Liu tells me. “But when we build platforms and frameworks, I think our goal is always to make it as broad and as flexible as possible for developers.” That, in turn, can lead to better business opportunities for app makers.

Liu gives some examples: Evernote, he says, sees four times the amount of user engagement on a Chrome OS-based Pixelbook than it does on Android. And while Chrome OS users account for only seven percent of the user base for the note-taking app Squid, Chrome OS users have accounted for 21 percent of the app’s total revenue over the past month.

For Apple developers especially, this kind of cross-platform support makes sense. There are more than two million apps available for iOS, but only a fraction of that number available for macOS. Apple is finally starting to pay some attention to the Mac App Store—the company is giving it a redesign this year—but the changes are mostly cosmetic. On the app-making front, anything Apple does to make it easier for iOS developers to check some boxes and bring those apps over to macOS could inject some much-needed life into the desktop’s App Store.

Steven Sinofsky, an investor and former Microsoft executive who oversaw the radical overhaul that was Windows 8 back in 2012 (and who left the company later that year), says these kinds of software convergences happen every so often and can be met with resistance at first. “There’s this notion that there’s a core set of functionalities, and then come along new and interesting scenarios and interaction models, and it seems like people are bolting things together,” he says. “But that’s how platform shifts happen. Platforms start as apps, and then become platforms.”

“It’s frustrating if you’re buying it and trying to use it at first,” Sinofsky adds. “But whatever the next platform is, this is how it’s going to happen.”

In other words, Frankensoftware might seem like the wretched experiment of a bunch of FOMO-driven executives when you’re struggling to swipe, tap, or shout your way through an interaction with a new product. But from now on, most every connected thing you buy is going to have a little bit of something else in it. And once the companies making those things figure out a way to make these interactions effortless, it won’t seem like such a bad thing.


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