Apperating Systems: The Blurry Line Between App & OS and The Coming Launcher Wars

A slide from the Facebook Home launch event shows how Facebook Home sits between the Android operating system and apps — i.e., it’s an apperating system. Photo: Alex Washburn/Wired
A slide from the Facebook Home launch event shows how Facebook Home sits between the Android operating system and apps — i.e., it’s an apperating system. Photo: Alex Washburn/Wired

Earlier this year Facebook launched Facebook Home and the (tech) world took notice. Here was a totally different user experience built on top of Android and not specifically tied to a company device (unlike Amazon’s Kindle Fire). Although it still allows you to get to the underlying Android apps, etc., Facebook Home effectively replaces the Android user experience, manipulating the operating system and how we use it. In the Android world these are called Launcher apps; an app that takes over and becomes what you see when you turn on your phone (or tablet) and dictates how you use it. Its an app that acts like an operating system, or as Wired recently called them “Apperating Systems”.

This isn’t new. There are a bunch of these launcher apps in Google Play with varying degrees of quality. Amazon’s Kindle Fire has its own apperating system running on top of Android. It’s not easy to create something that is going to be as fluid, responsive, and intuitive as the operating system it lives on, but when done right these apps bring more features and functionality than we get out of the box. It is difficult but you don’t need to be a large company to pull it off; Japan-based Go Launcher for example, brings more widgets, custom transitions, and greater flexibility to Android, and rated 4.5 after 1.2M+ reviews, has been downloaded over 50M times. Yes, 50M and growing.

Ottawa, Canada based Teknision is causing waves with their launcher named Chameleon. This thing is an Apperating System in the truest sense. Not only does it present a different user experience, widgets, and customizability, it works to understand you and what you might want at anytime of day. As Teknision says it’s “A homescreen designed to fit your lifestyle.” From the site…

“Chameleon lets you create multiple home screens each with your own layout of widgets and apps. Chameleon widgets are designed to give you the most relevant information that you want, when you want it. Your information needs may change throughout your day, so Chameleon includes an innovative context system. Through our context system you can create rules so that whenever you unlock your device you are presented with the Home Screen that is immediately valuable to you.”

That means you can wake up in the morning and turn on your tablet and you’ll get weather and maybe the morning news. Check back at work and you’ll see industry and work related content. In bed at night? Maybe videos and social. The focus here is an experience that is always relevant to you. Pretty cool stuff.

Being the first thing people see when they turn on their mobile device is extremely valuable real estate. Apple and Microsoft tightly control this; maintaining rules on what developers, OEMs, Carriers, and content companies can/can’t do on their devices. The effect is the everyone other than Apple and Microsoft are always a click (or much more) away; behind an icon or tile and fighting for app/content discovery and engagement.

With its open nature, Android steps in and has become the playground for the UX creative masses and opportunistic. Within some Google rules, companies can power the default Android homescreen experience and actually how people use their device. I can’t over-estimate how powerful that is. Wired’s article is titled “Move Over Apple and Google: Apperating Systems are Taking Over Your Phones”, and correctly notes this loss of control is a gift and a curse;

“As apperating systems spread and improve, they will help Android and iOS better serve niche audiences and serve as labs for features that migrate back to the host system and into general use. At the same time, they’ll raise thorny questions about the appropriate balance of power between operating system vendors like Google and Apple on the one hand and app makers like Facebook and Amazon on the other.”

There is a titanic industry shift underway where the hardware provider may not be the hardware experience provider. You can buy a phone because you like how it feels and the megapixels the camera has but then install the apperating system of your choice. In a tech world where the giants have been racing to control the full stack, this is very disruptive.

Facebook Home has put a spotlight on the space and in a sign that things are heating up, the money has started flowing. Yet to launch Aviate has recently raised a round of funding from some very note-able VCs and angels. My bet is we’ll see more investments soon.

Kindle, Facebook Home, Go Launcher, Chameleon, and Aviate all have their own goals and company objectives and its early days; the concept of being able to actually change the experience on your phone isn’t mainstream and whether it gets there depends on how much more compelling these apperating systems (or launcher apps) are versus the default mobile OS. Apple and Google will continue to work wonders on iOS and Android respectively and at the same time we’ll see more ways developers are extending those experiences. What you choose is up to you but what it all means is a consumer-focused, innovation driven world in the palm of your hand.
Facebook Home


Go Launcher