PM Dissects: Taking features away for competition

PM Dissects: Taking features away for competition

Youtube Music on Apple Watch

The YouTube Music App on my Apple Watch sucks. Traditionally, music apps on smart watches are similar to music apps on phones. They should be able to play music, recommend music, show your library and save some music offline. Some music apps can also help you search for music with your voice, though not all and if you have a cellular smart watch, they should be able to stream music. On my Apple Watch - Apple Music can do all of the above. So can Spotify. So can Amazon Music. YouTube Music can’t do any of it. It can’t stream music from the watch. It can’t download music on it. It can only function as a remote control for the mail phone app and every time you’re away from your phone, it ceases to function. This is such a shame because YouTube Music is such a great music service on the phone. It has the legendary YouTube recommendation system. It has a utilitarian interface that focuses on what I need to see rather than what a music player should look like. It is very cheap as you get YouTube Premium along with it. But it is simply nerfed on the Apple Watch. And the only reason I can think of is because Google wants to prioritise its own wearable OS. This kind of product thinking is what I call Platform Product Management or Platform Management and it’s becoming more common every day.

What is Platform Product Management?

In my mind, Platform Product Management is attempting to build an ecosystem of product and services around a central product called the platform. It’s also called an ecosystem. Look at Apple. Their iPhone is clearly their halo product and while people may think of iOS as the platform - those two are virtually inseparable. This means all of the other products Apple makes - whether it is their music app, their streaming service, their fitness service or their cloud service. This is a company which is famous for providing an amazing user experience within their own platform but anyone using their services on another platform like Android or Windows is treated like a second class citizen. In their contest - it kind of makes sense too. They didn’t build out a set of parallel services that they then converged around the iPhone. They sold a bunch of iPhones and then set out to find ways to monetise this large user base further by building subscription services. Seeing Apple’s success, other companies too have started converging their devices closer together for a platform play.

Why do companies try to build platforms?

It’s about money. If you can sell more to the same people, your ARPU goes up. And selling new stuff to the same people is much easier than selling the same stuff to new people. This works well if you can build a competitive service. If Apple Music was completely useless, people would leave the iPhone for Android as there Spotify can have a closer synergy level integration and provide a better experience. But it’s decent (at least after several iterations). The cost of switching a music streaming services is 0 (if you don’t think about cognitive effort) while that of switching a phone is at least a few hundred dollars - so people choose to switch to Apple Music and Apple makes more money.

The other reason is because the quality of a lot of services has become a function of how much money the company can spend in the short term to build out better features and get more subs. So the larger companies can choose to give features away for free and make their services specially competitive - like the case with lossless music on Apple/Amazon Music and free video hosting on YouTube. This gives companies even more incentive to build out services that work splendidly on their platforms but not as well everywhere else. At the same time they want to nerf other services on their own platform for a greater competitive edge.

Are platforms a software only thing?

Unfortunately, no. The consumer hardware industry has taken this weird route of starting off as very closed off. Proprietary ports, proprietary memory formats, proprietary communication standards, etc. were the norm. But the fixed nature of hardware products, specially the ones not connected to the internet - meant that the industry has to coalesce around a few industry standards - USB, Bluetooth, HDMI, NTFS. But with the recent emergence of over-the-air software updates and the ability to include a microprocessor in anything from an earbud to a watch, hardware manufacturers have once again started making platform plays. Wearables are plagued by this- only working with specific phones even though they are self contained computing devices. But this is not limited to emergent technologies. Even Bluetooth, an industry standard for years, is under attack by proprietary standards like Apple’s H1 and Google’s Nearby Pair which offer faster pairing with a select group of hardware products made by certain manufacturers. At-least Incase of BT, the new standards are solving problems that Bluetooth wasn’t doing particularly well.

Why do I not like Platform Product Management?

For mature services like YouTube, Gmail, MS Excel, Instagram, WhatsApp etc. there is a well established user base that uses them. This user base is spread across multiple platforms - accessing the service from a variety of devices running different OSes through either native apps or the web browser. They have invested time and effort in setting up the service just like they want - putting in their data, training the recommendation engine, onboarding their family and friends in case of social services, etc. Now let’s say one of these companies launches a new product that has the potential to become a platform - like new hardware or a new OS - or it ties up with another hardware/OS provider. It then starts holding back features from other devices/ OSes. It might be a good short term way of gaining a few users. But it is a huge dis-service to the existing user base and the product itself.

The product being held back has its own growth potential, its own product strategy and its own competitive advantage. Whenever a company makes a platform play they do two things -

  1. They remove/hold back certain functionality from their one or more of their other products on other platforms
  2. They make it more difficult for other competing products to implement similar functionality on their own platform

As Apple makes Apple Music’s iOS app much better, it makes it more difficult for other music apps to have similar integrations in the OS. Both the user bases - iPhone’s and Spotify’s (for example) are getting a poorer experience. They might not realise it soon enough but they are.


Finally, let’s talk about why wrote I this article. It’s not that I love Apple so much I can’t imagine using WearOS. But WearOS is objectively worse- with poor battery management, poor app support, poor hardware choices and so many other issues. But I love YT Music. It’s amazing for all the reasons I talked about earlier and my Apple Watch is pretty good too. The fact that I can’t use any of the Google Services I love - YT Music, Google Calendar, Google Maps, on my Apple Watch is more than a mild annoyance. It makes me feel that I am no longer the user these services are trying to serve. And I might have to take my money elsewhere.