At the start of this year I woke up one morning and reached for my iPhone where I discovered something awful. Dark Sky, a peerless weather app that had been a trusted guide through years of working life in wet and moody Britain, had died.
This super usable app showed at a glance if you should head to the office 10 minutes early to avoid getting soaked, or go out coatless, or rush home to walk the dog before a downpour, and it had been disabled on January 1st. To be precise, it had been killed. By Apple.
A bit of forensic googling showed the tech company had bought Dark Sky back in March 2020 – news I failed to spot at the time on account of a gathering global pandemic. I had also missed stories on tech news websites last year that reported Apple’s plans to absorb Dark Sky’s features into its Apple Weather app, before shutting it down.
I was not alone. “It’s unbelievable,” moaned a friend who said he had been repeatedly drenched cycling to work since Dark Sky had perished.
The internet was indignant. Shifting Dark Sky’s tech to Apple’s “abomination of a weather app” really “sucks” and “might go down in history as one of the dumbest most frustrating things Apple has ever done”, fumed users.
The outcry was still going last week, along with a #bringbackdarksky hashtag, not least because rival apps are worse and Apple’s own weather app is definitely, truly, without any doubt inferior. It may have incorporated Dark Sky’s next-hour rain forecasts and it may have a lot of colourful graphics and more data. But it takes so many clicks and swipes to decipher it that the result is infuriatingly slow and clunky compared with the user-friendly ease of Dark Sky.
As 2023 problems go this one is clearly more irksome than important. But it does raise questions about corporate deals that leave consumers worse off, and not just in the tech sector.
In the pharmaceutical industry researchers think large companies sometimes make “killer acquisitions” of smaller companies purely to bin innovative projects before they hit the market. These deals are disproportionately small enough to avoid scrutiny from antitrust regulators, bolstering the risk of what other academics call “stealth consolidation” that can add up to poorer healthcare.
The stakes are less dire when it comes to apps on your phone, and it is sometimes harder to know exactly what has been lost in a tech acquisition.
When a company such as Facebook buys Instagram, as it did in 2012, or WhatsApp, as it did in 2014, it is easy to imagine how much innovation and consumer choice will go missing. But it is hard to quantify precisely how much better off the world might have been if Facebook had made its own breakthroughs instead.
Alas, it is very easy to understand what has been lost with Dark Sky, one of a string of smaller acquisitions made by Apple, which has sometimes bought companies at the rate of one every three or four weeks.
This does not always lead to the death of a beloved app. The Shazam music-identifying app that Apple bought in 2018 is still alive and in some ways better, being ad-free.
Might Dark Sky have survived as well if Apple did not already have an existing weather app? I don’t know. But as things stand it seems to have been lost forever.
When I asked Apple what it had to say about the criticism of its own app, and whether there were any plans to improve it, or reinstate Dark Sky, the company initially directed me to a support page detailing all the features in its Weather app.
I was then told Apple had something called WeatherKit that provided developers with weather data they could use in their own apps, and was reminded that Dark Sky was only available in the US, UK and Ireland, while the Apple Weather app was global.
That would be a good thing if Apple’s app was a serious adornment to the world. It is not. It’s a real shame that it has been allowed to live while Dark Sky has had to die. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023