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Apple’s Dark Sky acquisition could be bad news for indie weather apps

With its purchase of Dark Sky, Apple is cutting off a major source of inexpensive, hyperlocal weather data for other apps.

Apple’s Dark Sky acquisition could be bad news for indie weather apps
[Photo: Sam Schooler/Unsplash]

When Apple acquires a popular app, it’s often bad news for the people who use it. Just look at the fate of apps such as Swell, Hopstop, and Texture, all of which shut down after being bought by Apple.

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But Apple’s latest acquisition, the popular weather app Dark Sky, affects more than just the app’s users. Apple isn’t merely shutting down the Android version of the app—it’s also planning to cut off other weather apps that rely on Dark Sky’s data, both on iOS and Android. When that happens at the end of 2021, independent weather apps such as Carrot, Weather Line, and Partly Sunny will no longer have access to inexpensive, hyperlocal weather forecasts. (Dark Sky’s own iOS app will continue to work for now, and the Android version will work for existing users through July 1.)

“I think the effect of this is going to be tons of apps will have to sunset because they won’t have the time or energy to switch,” says Jonas Downey, the cocreator of Hello Weather for iOS and Android. “Or if they want to switch, [Dark Sky’s] competitors are expensive, and they won’t be able to afford it.”

More than just a weather app

Although weather apps abound on both iOS and Android, the vast majority don’t provide their own forecasts. Instead, they pay for access to weather data from suppliers such as AccuWeather or Foreca, then present the forecasts in their own unique ways. Carrot, for instance, injects a bit of humor into its weather descriptions, while Appy Weather presents forecasts in a way that almost resembles a social media feed.

Dark Sky is different. Much like the suppliers that other apps rely on, Dark Sky pulls in raw data from public sources such as the National Weather Service, then uses that data to create its own forecasts. The big hook for Dark Sky isn’t its slick presentation but its use of machine learning models to predict the weather based on a user’s precise location. If it’s going to rain outside your house in the next 10 minutes, for instance, Dark Sky can send a warning accordingly.

While Dark Sky is best known as a standalone app, it also acts as a supplier, allowing third-party developers to pay for access to its forecasts. And compared to other sources, the Dark Sky API is often the cheapest, so it’s especially attractive to independent weather app developers operating on small budgets.

Downey says that when Hello Weather got started in 2015, it chose Dark Sky as a data source because of its pay-as-you-go model. While most weather providers use tiered pricing that quickly becomes cost-prohibitive for small developers, Dark Sky allows a certain number of free forecast requests per day, then charges tiny fractions of a penny for each additional request after a developer hits the free limit. He’s not aware of any services that have a similar model.

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“If you were getting started out, you didn’t have to pay some huge amount of monthly money just to use the API a little bit,” Downey says.

Dark Sky’s hyperlocal forecasts are also fairly uncommon among weather data providers. Although Hello Weather now allows users to choose other sources, such as AccuWeather, for their forecasts, they’ll still see a chart from Dark Sky that predicts whether it will rain soon in their immediate area.

“We’re hoping we can find another source that has something like that, because it’s really interesting,” Downey says. He’s currently looking into Climacell, another hyperlocal forecaster that’s now offering to match Dark Sky’s API pricing, but only for developers who sign up in the next 14 days.

Life after Dark Sky

Downey says that Hello Weather is prepared to go on without Dark Sky. The app already supports other data sources, and while Apple has now cut off Dark Sky’s API access for new developers, it’s given existing ones until the end of 2021 to find alternative solutions.

Still, smaller developers may struggle without Dark Sky’s unique price structure. And if the only alternative is expensive monthly subscriptions to access weather data, some aspiring weather app makers may never launch in the first place.

“I’ve been scouting other options for a few months now, and although they all have their individual pros and cons, one thing they all seem to share in common is that you have to pay a flat fee every month to reserve a certain number of calls,” says Bardi Golriz, who makes the excellent Appy Weather for Android. “For bigger companies, this may not be a big deal, but for an indie developer like myself, this makes a critical difference.”

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There is a theory that Apple might continue to support weather app developers in the long run. Over at Daring Fireball, John Gruber wrote on Tuesday that he’s hoping Apple will eventually offer its own hyperlocal weather forecasting APIs that developers could tap into.

“This would add a competitive advantage for iOS and MacOS both in terms of weather and privacy,” Gruber wrote. “Third-party weather apps are notorious for abusing location privileges.”

Such an offering would be of little consolation to Android users, but either way, it’s unclear how iOS developers can compete if Apple’s own weather apps vastly improve as a result of the Dark Sky acquisition.

Golriz notes that he’s been working on an iOS version of Appy Weather, but now he’s concerned about its viability. If Apple’s plan is to eventually integrate Dark Sky’s data and design into its own default Weather app, iPhone users may be less likely to go looking for alternatives.

“I’m still confident that I’ll be able to compete from a user experience perspective once it ships,” Golriz says, “but I am worried about reduced general demand for third-party options.”

Compared to some other acquisitions, the situation with Dark Sky is unique for the ripple effects it will have on apps that use Dark Sky’s data. The idea that Apple might kneecap third-party developers in the process of boosting its own services, however, is not novel at all.

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