Apple’s Weather Chaos is rebooting the weather app market

A forecast consultant may be the best kept secret in the weather business. It’s a website, run by a company called Intellovations, that compares the accuracy of dozens of the top weather forecasters. You enter your zip code (it only works in the US), and it re-rates services based on how correctly they predicted the weather over the past month and last year. You might be shocked at how different different sources are and how bad some of them are at predicting the weather.

Depending on the weather app you use, this is very actionable information. Many third-party weather apps allow you to switch between data sources, so you can choose the most accurate source near you — AccuWeather, in my case — and enjoy a more useful weather system right away.

Knowing what forecaster you’re using is also helpful, because there’s no such thing as a perfect source of weather data. “Whether it’s because of the model they use, whether it’s because they have a lot of weather stations in that area to provide a lot of coverage, or whether they have access to radar data, it’s impossible for one to have complete coverage of every place,” he says. Brian Mueller, creator of Carrot Weather.

Want more about weather apps? We talked about them on The Vergecast too.

Data is only part of the equation, too. Each source also has its own algorithms for processing that data and tools for publishing it. “The books I prefer are the most poetic, and they write a lot about what’s going to happen,” says Jonas Downie, co-founder of Hello Weather. “Some of them are really brief, like ‘Partly cloudy.’ Some of them say, ‘The afternoon will have a little cloud and a light breeze.’ I like those that have a little bit of Bigger than empathy, you know?

Instead of giving you one weather provider, many weather apps offer a number of sources. They’re designing ways for you to browse sources to find the most accurate source, and more than one developer has told me they’re trying to find a way to integrate Forecast Advisor to help. They hope that one way to compete with built-in apps and convince people to download a third-party weather system — and even pay for it — is to simply be able to do it better.

Dark Sky was a huge loss for weather app fans – and weather app developers

It’s been a strange few years for the weather app industry. In 2020, Apple announced that it had acquired Dark Sky, the beloved weather app that also happens to be the data provider for a slew of other weather apps. At the beginning of this year, Dark Sky stopped working, and the API was shut down in March. Meanwhile, Apple has added some Dark Sky technology to its Weather app and replaced the Dark Sky API with its own tool called WeatherKit.

Many users and developers were saddened by the loss of Dark Sky. It was a masterpiece of data-driven design, and its API was easy to integrate and cheap to use. It also provided minute-by-minute weather data long before most other providers, making “it will rain in 8 minutes” notifications possible. “I don’t think we would have made a weather app if it weren’t for Dark Sky,” says Trevor Turk, Hello Weather’s other co-founder. Unlike most providers, Dark Sky is set up to provide all the data you need with a single Application Programming Interface (API) request; Instead of asking about every data point, your app could just say “What’s the weather like?” And get a complete answer. The reason many weather apps are designed to show the current weather, then hourly, then daily, then weekly forecasts, is because that’s how Dark Sky organized its data.

In the past, Dark Sky was as good as weather app design.
Photo: Dan Seifert

Then things got even worse when Apple Weather and WeatherKit started crashing spectacularly. In early April, the weather app stopped providing data several times, replacing forecasts with error messages. Developers who were using WeatherKit as their data source were out of luck for hours at a time. “Not all users have been able to check the weather for some time,” says Anton Choyko, developer of an app called Weather Fit. “Technically, the situation is not very stable.”

But that chaos also presented opportunity. Downloads of five popular weather apps jumped 170% on average during the week of the outages, according to market intelligence firm Sensor Tower. The number of weekly active users of these apps jumped by 9 percent in the same week. Things slowed down a bit as Apple Weather recovered, but it showed developers that there was room for something more.

With Dark Sky gone and WeatherKit becoming less reliable, a lot of weather apps are starting to integrate with multiple sources to make sure they’re always online and to provide the most accurate forecasts everywhere. It’s a tough UI challenge, though: giving users fully-featured, easy-to-understand forecasts is hard enough, let alone five or six slightly different ones.

All this data is expensive, too. “We would have to access each data source every time you request it, and then somehow merge all the data together,” says Hello Weather’s Downey. “It’s going to be slow And Expensive.” The Turk chimes in: “We are also not legally allowed to do that.” In fact, the terms of the data providers prevent the data from being combined with other sources or even used as a comparison tool.

Carrot Weather is an app that blends simple design with massive amounts of data.
Photo: Island Weather

As a result, many weather apps have turned to subscriptions — Carrot Weather now costs about $20 per year, while Hello Weather costs about $13 per year. That’s a steep price to replace an app that ostensibly comes free with your phone.

In order to make it worthwhile, these apps focus more deeply on data and cater to weather nerds. For example, Carrot’s Mueller says he spent much of the past year building new radar instruments. “So in the United States, the radar comes from individual radar stations,” he says. “Then in most applications, they bring the radar station data together into a mosaic that covers the entire country.” But individual stations are updated faster and with more accurate data than the mosaic as a whole. “There are a host of other factors, such as speed that shows where the winds are rotating and a ‘correlation coefficient’ that is useful for seeing debris flying into the air from a tornado,” Mueller says. It puts all of these things into Carrot Weather while trying to make sure that users can discover them.

Weather apps cater to more weather nerds than ever before

Weather apps have to walk a difficult line: They have to give you a single-screen experience where you can open the app and learn about the weather in a second or two while offering the kind of depth and knowledge that no app will ever match. Users are then slowly guided down the hole, taught how to read radar and compare forecasts.

For the average person, Apple Weather and its ilk will probably be fine eventually. “I think it will be like Apple Maps,” says Hello Weather’s Turk. “When Apple Maps came out, it was bad.” But eventually, it got better. To stay ahead, developers know they’ll have to keep looking for ways to do more and improve. They’re all thinking about what long-rumored and soon-expected weather apps might look like on headphones, and preparing for all the new features they’ll have to adopt when the next version of iOS is announced in June.

But they believe the real competitive advantage is being better at telling you the weather. “There’s something psychological about it,” says Hello Weather’s Downey. “The weather happens to you, and you have no control over it. A weather app gives you a sense of control. That means more data, more data sources, and more tools for people to be their own meteorologists. Because not all weather apps are created equal, and no There’s something called the perfect weather app for everyone.But that doesn’t mean you have to get caught in the rain.

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