The end of branded platform apps
One of the surest signs of the end of the platform wars is that Apple and Google’s in-house apps are no longer branded. Apple’s text messaging app is called “Messages”. Google’s is too now. Apple’s wallet analogue — where you keep cards you can pay with and coupons and loyalty cards for the stores you frequent — is called “Wallet”. So is Google’s. You can see your photos on your phone, in the “Photos” app.
If you want to play music on your iPhone you tap “Music”, not “iPod”. You can run Chrome on an iPhone, although Safari remains. Calendar has replaced “iCal”.
Your iPhone has both “Maps” and “Google Maps” on it but let’s be honest Google probably isn’t going to drop that distinction. Which is fair. But they’re both “Maps”.
The trend right now is certainly toward naming things more simply, but there’s something deeper going on here. Apple released an app called “TV”. It’s not just called that because they wanted to have a short punchy name that resonates with its use case. It’s because the platforms have enormous presence and dominance and they are taking over literally everything and there’s room for both iOS and Android in the world and you already know which one you prefer.
And then I remembered a phrase I haven’t heard in a long time, because the trend is toward nothing being too small to be a product. Credit Karma is a successful product for checking your credit score. NerdWallet helps you find credit cards. Everything has been increasingly unbundled. Look at this:
Which brings me back to the phrase:
Feature Not A Company
The platforms are moving in a different direction, hard. Some time ago it was common to hear debates about whether a startup was a feature, not a company (credit to Mark Suster’s excellent explanation). Something that couldn’t really stand alone but had basically raised money to prove that a discrete piece of functionality was valuable to users and would be acquired or outcompeted by an in-house offering from a company better equipped to deliver an integrated solution. Apple and Google seem to be saying that their platforms are sufficiently distributed and powerful that all of these things are better experiences folded in than standing alone.
In this view, these BIG things — messaging, payment and loyalty programs, listening to music, your calendar, maps and finding things, and even all of ‘TV’ — are apps that they make that aggregate services. The TV app is how you consume visual media. Not a television that’s connected to a cable company that’s buying content that’s produced by media companies with the scale to make those deals. The entire stack collapses and all you need is basically an app store and an undifferentiated internet connection.
It’s back to the old days of things being a feature, not a company. But now it’s not about tech startups like GroupMe, it’s about the fundamentals of American life like TV. It’s one thing to say that a new company really should be folded into another, but something entirely different to say that entire industries are now just an app.
What does this mean for companies?
Well, bad news if you distribute coupons. More realistically, it’s a call to action to think about your distribution. Who owns the connection to your consumers? Are they already using your product or service on their phone? Is your brand or lock-in strong enough to fight off intermediation? That’s the big question, because without a strategy for answering it your margins are going to be under siege … if I’m reading this right.