Smartphone Pushes – Urban Airship Raises Millions of Dollars, To Send Billions of Notifications a Month

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Urban Airship rich push
Text alerts lead users to find coupons and messages they can store for later use. Push notifications are evolving and Urban Airship is playing Darwin.

In the future, apps on your smart phone will know where you are, what you want, and how to grab your attention. That future is here. For those that own a smart phone or tablet, the app is an unavoidable product – the table on which all the delicious software of Apple and Android is served. As apps evolved they found a way to communicate with users through short alert messages called push notifications and now pushes are almost as universal as apps themselves. One small company in Portland is at the head of this wave of app communication. Urban Airship enables developers to easily incorporate notifications into their apps. They recently handled their 8 billionth push via one of their 25,000+ developer clients. They send more than one billion pushes a month, a figure they expect to double early next year. No longer simply text pop-ups on your smart phone, Urban Airship’s “Rich Pushes” are HTML creations that look like web pages and can function as coupons, public opinion polls, and much more. With millions in funding, and colossal growth in 2011, Urban Airship is ready to make sure that when apps talk, users sit up and pay attention.

Typical smart phone and tablet users will have dozens of apps on their device, but will use relatively few on a daily basis. Push notifications allow apps to operate independently, finding content to share with their users that will shoot them back into the limelight. The Facebook app lets you know when a friend has commented on your photo, the Chess Master app lets you know when an online opponent has taken their turn, and various weather apps alert you when a tornado is a comin’.

With the growing presence, perhaps necessity, of notifications, Urban Airship has done something very smart – they’ve allowed developers to farm out the inclusion of pushes in their apps. Why go through all the hassle of creating your own push system when you can simply use Urban Airship’s API? The following promotional video explores more reasons why this company’s targeted niche has allowed them to grow from 8000 to over 25,000 clients in just a year.

Yet any company might find success by taking on odious development chores for clients. Urban Airship distinguishes itself by innovating the very nature of what constitutes a push. Text filled pop-ups are simply the beginning. Apps empowered by Urban Airships Rich Pushes give users an in-app library of notifications (no more disappearing messages!). That library can contain full HTML messages, meaning that these notes appear almost like miniature web pages, complete with images, thumbnail links to videos, polls, etc. A big feature of Urban Airship, and Rich Pushes in particular, is that they enable in-app purchases. Add a little Java-Script to a push and you can have users buying products with just a few taps on the screen. That’s a very important feature in a field that constantly struggles to find ways to bring in reliable revenue.The following demonstration video shows you what you can expect to see in a Rich Push:

*Note: This demo discusses Air Mail, an earlier Urban Airship product which has since been upgraded/morphed into the more general library and API that the company uses today. Despite the name change, the video still gives you a good look at the how the concept works:

Another impressive feature of Urban Airship’s handling of push notifications, is the backend data they collect on user activity. How many pushes does your app send out, how often is your app opened, and how long do users spend inside the app? Urban Airship gathers that information for its clients (without personally identifiable data on users) and synthesizes valuable reports practically in real time. In just a few minutes, developers can know how well a push affected the traffic in an app, what kinds of topics users are interested in, and how often they took advantage of the features seen in Rich Apps.

Urban Airship reports
Data collected via Urban Airship allows developers to track their user's attention.

There’s little doubt that Urban Airship is great news for app creators, but what about all the millions of users out there? Are they fated to endure an endless wave of notes from apps? I spoke with Sasha Mace, Director of Product at Urban Airship. He points out that users can easily opt out of receiving any pushes on an app, and that his company encourages developers to take advantage of user-friendly tools like quiet time windows – setting times during the day when an app will keep its pushes to itself. More importantly, however, is the basic philosophy at Urban Airship that pushes should serve both sides of the app. Their clients should get a better way of talking to their users, and users should get content they actually want. It doesn’t pay for a developer to get abusive – users will just shut off notices. Instead, Urban Airship and its clients are finding new ways of bringing value-added experiences to users.

A key part of bringing that dream to fruition is SimpleGeo. The San Francisco based startup was acquired by Urban Airship this year following an earlier successful product partnership. SimpleGeo lets developers easily incorporate GPS based data into their apps. Urban Airship is going to leverage SimpleGeo’s location-based expertise to help create a new generation of location-aware pushes. According to Mace, the first cases of this merging will appear in Q1 of 2012 and will allow developers to target pushes based on where a user is located. This smart segmentation of the user base was the subject of the original Airship-SimpleGeo partnership, and gives clients a great way of making sure content is relevant. Who wants their shopping app to send them coupons to stores they can’t find in their home town?

Looking further down the line, the acquisition of SimpleGeo will allow Urban Airship to explore largely uncharted territory. Will users want their apps to know they went into one of their favorite bars and automatically ask their friends to join? Could SIRI remind you to take your keys before you leave the house? Maybe Yelp will remind you that you’re about to pass by that restaurant you’ve been meaning to try.

The vast potential of geographically enhanced Rich Pushes is one of many reasons why Urban Airship has had a killer year. 2011 saw the company’s revenue increase by 600%! October, which included the arrival of iOS5 and the iPhone 4S was insane for the Portland pushers – traffic shot up by a factor of ten. They are well on their way to 2 billion notifications served a month. All this success attracted a great round of Series C funding, with $15.1 million raised in Q3 from big names like Verizon, Intel, True Ventures, the Foundry Group, and SalesForce. That brings Urban Airship up to around $26 million in funding – plenty for a company of 50-60 employees looking to add another 20 or so in the upcoming months. All signs point to Urban Airship enjoying even more growth through winter and into 2012. Pushes are almost certain to continue their important role in the app-shere and Urban Airship is poised to remain at the top of that world. Great expectations for the company abound.

Whether the underlying concept of push notifications will ultimately be a boon to users, however, remains unclear. Mace talks a good talk about finding common ground between users and developers, but there may be a struggle to establish where the line between invasive and informative content should be drawn. Portable devices connect us to the digital world almost anywhere, but they also open us up to a barrage of ads, and notifications are just the latest tool for making digital products unavoidable. Let’s hope that Urban Airship’s quest to improve push notifications will make them more valuable to everyone involved, and far less, well you know…pushy.

[image and video credit: Urban Airship]
[sources: Urban Airship, SimpleGeo]