Some guy once said that in the future (meaning now) everyone will get fifteen minutes of fame. I’m still waiting on mine – for some reason, Maury isn’t returning any of my phone calls. But Skyfire, a company best known for kinda-sorta bringing Flash video to iOS devices, got its time in the spotlight for being the best way to display Flash videos on iOS devices.
Unfortunately, as is the case with many seemingly earth-shatteringly important technology developments, this didn’t matter for long. Once HTML5-based video playback became popular and the lack of Flash went from potential deal-breaker to a non-issue, a browser built specifically for Flash videos wasn’t in high demand.
Not content to rest on its laurels, Skyfire decided to work on some back-end projects and partner with AT&T to augment Android browsers with – what else? – a toolbar.
When Jeffrey Glueck, Skyfire’s CEO, told me that this was the company’s plan to “revolutionize” smartphone browsing, I was extremely skeptical. As someone that has had to remove countless unwanted toolbars for family members (my fiancee’s grandmother has around seven or eight installed in her browser), the idea of adding a toolbar to mobile browsers sounded like a nightmare. After our call, however, I started to become ever-so-slightly more open to the concept.
Described as “a wingman” for the browser, the toolbar (dubbed Skyfire Horizon) performs a variety of functions. It can be used to search through many of the major social networks or services, like Facebook, Twitter, or IMDB, and there are partnerships in place to further extend its functionality. Blue Kangaroo powers a “personal shopper for offers” that can find and handle coupon codes related to an item the person is browsing, and Quixey can show users “contextually relevant” apps that they may want to download.
One of the most important aspects of the toolbar is that it offers the user total control. Users can choose whether or not they even want to use the toolbar, the sites and functions that appear, if they do choose to use it, and so on and so forth. That these things even need to be questioned is a bit depressing, but we are talking about AT&T – they aren’t particularly well known for giving users freedom.
Or, for that matter, advocating for consumer privacy. My first thought after “that’s going to suck” was “so, AT&T’s going to be monitoring the websites users visit even further?” But it turns out that users have control over that as well. They can choose to send the data to AT&T as anonymized, hashed packets, or can choose to opt-out.
So why is this toolbar, a prime opportunity for AT&T to say “it needs eight ads, access to these sites, and should report every Web page the user visits with their name and phone number!” any different? According to Glueck, it’s because AT&T has started to realize that it doesn’t have a real choice in the matter.
“I think the carriers have been humbled a bit by Apple and Google, and Amazon and Facebook, and they realize they have to modernize a bit,” Glueck says. “They’re still large bureaucratic embassies, but they’re getting more nimble, because they have to.”
He added that Skyfire advocated for the user experience throughout the entire process, and successfully convinced AT&T that if users don’t like the toolbar they simply won’t use it.
Skyfire’s insistence on a quality user experience managed to turn what could have been a disaster into something that Glueck says less than one percent of users opt out of. (It’s worth noting that the toolbar has shipped with a small number of phones, and one of the benefits of Android is that users can install a non-default browser, but the stat is still surprising.)
That a relatively small company was able to make a mobile toolbar work well and advocate for the consumer to AT&T, which could have easily said “well, we’ll just build a version ourselves,” is impressive. Skyfire will have to walk a fine line between justifying Horizon’s presence on phones by including all kinds of features and avoiding the trap of adding too many features, and it will be interesting to see if this emphasis on consumer happiness can last.