Why are Unicorns re-bundling their mobile apps?

With more than 3 million+ apps combined in all app stores & 42 apps on the device of an average smartphone user, we need to question the need for more apps, or simply having more in every app.

Apps are essential in a mobile world, but an app either costs us money, or time to learn and use it. I certainly do not use all my apps and I clear them relatively often — monthly.

There are many articles questioning the need for another messaging/dating/food/photography app and if they continue to provide added value. It is surprising then, that there is an ongoing trend to unbundle technology and break them into smaller parts — whether that’s a product, service, a piece of content or app.

“There’s only two ways to make money: bundling and unbundling”. -Jim Barksdale

The idea of unbundling/bundling to point the way north for mobile’s next system of growth is highly appealing. The future is unknown, but I would like to look into the crystal ball and make some predictions.

UNBUNDLING

The digital age has been about unbundling — breaking apart products and institutions into thin, condensed slices. Music CDs were unbundled into single MP3s, newspapers unbundled into blogs, classified ad sites. Are apps slowly splitting like atoms and unbundling into multiple apps?

“All smartphone apps by their nature unbundle services from the web browser itself, 20 years after Netscape launched” — Ben Evans

BENEFITS OF UNBUNDLING:

  1. Single purpose apps provide better niche and focused experiences
  2. Another app gives retail space to appear on users’ home screens.
  3. Shared login for multiple apps to allow for app linking

The first disgruntled signs of mobile unbundling began with Facebook. The furore from unbundling their messaging experience into a separate app was strongly felt, but it was not their only instance nor are they the only ones.

Google: Split up its Drive apps into three separate standalone apps: Sheets, Slides, and Docs

Foursquare: Broke its app in two to launch Swarm, an app focused on social mapping

Instagram: Launched Hyperlapse and now Layout, an app to create photo collages.

Twitter: Launched Vine and now Periscope, a live streaming app in response to Meerkat.

WHAT ABOUT UNICORNS / GIANT TECH COMPANIES?

The trend of unbundling has been predominantly prevalent for billion dollar giants of tech who venture into apps that do multiple important tasks.

“Unbundling is completely untenable for smaller companies. The only reason that companies like Facebook, Google, and Foursquare able to do it is because they’re giants in the space.” — Mark Burstiner, Fueled

Have we reached a tipping point of bundling that we actually need to bundle down? Maybe, maybe not.

EXTENSIONS, NOTIFICATIONS & CARDS

If you subscribe to unbundling and the hyper-focused world of micro-apps for each Job To Be Done (JTBD), you would bet heavily on improved inter-app surfing and the notifications/cards (iOS/Android) that you give permission to push content to you from the apps, without ever opening them.

You would also want mobile technology to reach a phase where paths and tools are on hand to search and be discovered efficiently, i.e. a PageRank for mobile. Google has started indexing app-to-app links, but it is still in it’s nascent stages.

IS UNBUNDLING A RESULT OF FEAR?

According to Taylor Davidson, companies go through a knee-jerk process of responding when something’s not working. Competitors might be eating into their users, so they build a new app to compete. These unbundled apps are built to solve the incumbent company’s problem more than the user’s problem.

RE-BUNDLING

Bundling at its heaviest form would be tech that tries to do everything at once for everyone, but at its best, it provides a sweet value proposition to enhance a users experience.

Consumers have also voiced their opinion that there is no need for another app, just better service also existing channels. Lets look at some of the qualities of bundling and a few companies employing it as a strategy.

BENEFITS OF BUNDLING

  1. Users remain in app
  2. Enhance value in app
  3. The problems of app discovery and interoperability are still broken.
“Most app developers realize there is a point of diminishing returns to bundling up unrelated features, and few cross the line.” — Seth Shafer, SNL Kagan

EASTERN PROMISES

Major players in China have eschewed the unbundling bandwagon entirely. Apps such as Baidu and WeChat have become swiss army knives, allowing users to blog, send resumes, find locations, book services and receive confirmation all within the same app.

Baidu Maps allowing users to search, book and confirm a movie.

Vurb is a product that has sprouted to become a mobile first search engine with deep links to various services through contextualized results, using cards to remove the need to jump between apps for the mobile internet experience.

Vurb aims to solve the app-switching conundrum we face in mobile multi-tasking.

The curious existence of Vurb means it isn’t entirely the classic east vs west shootout, where big players in different continents go head-to-head using totally opposite strategies.

UNBUNDLING HASN’T REALLY WORKED, YET.

Unbundling is about simplicity to reduce complexity to allow users to get things done with ease and efficiency, and some major players will continue to fight for whatever space they can get on your screen.

It is an effective way for a company to use an established app with a large user base to drive distribution for a newer, unbundled app. But it hasn’t really worked for any app apart from Facebook messenger so far.

Carousel (Dropbox), Slingshot (Facebook), Facebook Messenger, Swarm (Foursquare). Clockwise from top left.

Fred Wilson of AVC used the term ‘App Constellations’ to describe the mobile app ecosystem with giants that split their products into standalone apps.

These giants from Dropbox, Facebook, and Foursquare are experimenting with Carousel, Slingshot and Swarm for unbundling, using an aggressive promotion strategy. The stats show that apart from messenger, there is a consistent downward trajectory in downloads for standalone apps, in contrast to parent apps.

TAKEAWAY:

With apps slated to be systems instead of destinations, the jobs each app does need to be clearer for it to provide value to the customer.

Unbundling seems to be a luxury for giants for the moment and focusing on relevant features and utilities might be wiser for most apps.

FINDING AN APP’S NETWORK OF ‘UTILITIES’.

Every app has a set of 1. core features, 2. utilities and 3. accessories, depending on the task your app fulfils.

Facebook’s core feature would be newsfeed and identify, with a second layer of ‘utility’, such as photo albums, messages and events that drives engagement and repeat usage.

Twitter’s core feature is the feed, with utilities such as messages, cards and photos for stickiness.

The third layer, as casually mentioned by Matthew Panzarino of TechCrunch in a podcast, are made up of accessories that build on top of these apps. Examples: Tinder on Facebook & Meerkat on Twitter.

Brilliant renderings of the concept by Jonathan Libov (@libovness)

Apps that employ growth hacking all tap into being an accessory for the giant social media channels but also have strong utilities to keep users engaged once they tap into their social graph, even if you get dumped out like Meerkat.

Find the core features of your app and build great utilities on top of it.

CYCLES

Facebook is now looking to bundle their messenger back with a layer of accessories, highlighting how short the cycle of unbundling can be in a mobile first world.

Don’t bet on any of them being the future, both strategies will be used frequently.

“My pops used to say, it (hip-hop) reminded him of Bebop
I said, well daddy don’t you know that things go in cycles
Way that Bobby Brown is just amping like Michael
Its all expected, things are for the looking “ — 
ATCQ, “Excursions”

RESOURCES:

Statista
Nielsen
Whoo.ps
App Annie

  • The always informative intercom blog recently published this post: “Get ready for the great re-bundling of mobile”.
  • I remembered visiting the very same topic previously to understand how the mobile industry is about to move in a cyclical fashion.
  • *This post was written for the Sinch blog and first appeared there.