Sunday, October 24, 2010

Accidental Data Empires

In the new world of big data and analytics a winning business model is to find a novel way to collect interesting big data. Once you have the data, the ways to exploit it are endless. It is a phenomenon that I have seen several times, the latest example is Flurry, a company that collects and aggregates data from mobile applications. Peter Farago, VP Marketing, and Sean Byrnes, CTO abd Co-founder of Flurry spoke to the October meeting of the SDForum Business Intelligence SIG on "Your Company’s Mobile App Blind Spot".

The Flurry proposition is simple, they offer a toolkit that an app developer combines with their mobile app. The app developer goes to the Flurry website, creates a free account and downloads the toolkit. Whenever an instance of the app with the Flurry code is activated or used, it collects information about the usage that is sent back to the Flurry. The amount of information is small, usually about 1.2 kB compressed, so the burden of collection is small. At Flurry, the data is collected, cleansed and put in a gigantic data cube. At any time, an app developer can log into the Flurry website and get reports on how their application is being used. You can get a feel for their service by taking the short Analytics developer tour. Flurry have committed that their Analytics service will always be free.

While there are some issues with data collection that Flurry deals with, the quality of the data is great. Every mobile phone has a unique identifier so there is no problem with identifying individual usage patterns. As the service is free, there is very little friction to its use. Flurry estimates that they are in one in five mobile apps that are out there. In fact, for an app developer, the only reason for not using Flurry is that they have chosen to use a rival data collection service.

In the end however, the big winner is Flurry, who collect huge amounts of information about mobile app and phone usage. In the meeting Peter Farago gave us many different analyses of where the mobile smartphone market is and where it is going, including adoption rates for iPhones versus Android based phones and how the follow on market for apps on each platform is developing. You can get a mouthwatering feel for the information they presented by looking at their blog in which they publish a series of analyses from their data. As I write their latest post shows a graph on the "Revenue Shift from Advertising to Virtual Goods Sales" which shows that apps are growing their revenue from sales of virtual goods, while advertising revenue seems to be stagnant.

With data aggregators, there is always something creepy when you discover just how much data they have on you. Earlier this year there was an incident where a Flurry blog post described some details of the iPad a few days before it was announced that they had gleaned from apps running on these new devices in the Apple offices. Steve Jobs was so provoked by this that he called out Flurry by name and changed the iPhone app developer terms of service to prevent apps from collecting certain sorts of data. You can read more about this incident in the blog report on the meeting by my colleague Paul O'Rorke.

The title of this piece is a reference to the entertaining and still readable book Accidental Empires by Robert X. Cringely about the birth of the personal computer industry and the rivalry between Steve Jobs and Bill Gates.

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