Unbundling the Mobile Experience

There is a confluence of conflicting forces underpinning mobile today and the outcome will define the mobile experience of tomorrow.

Here are two of this morning’s announcements:

  1. Snapchat announced they were adding video chat and instant messaging
  2. Foursquare’s move to split their app services into two separate apps

On the surface, these may seem like inconsequential developments but they speak forcefully to how the mobile user experience is evolving.

In a recent interview with Mark Zuckerberg, he was asked about the work Facebook’s Creative Labs is focused on.  Creative Labs is an internal Facebook team assigned with “crafting new apps to support the diverse ways people want to connect and share.” In other words, Creative Labs is tasked with leveraging (and one might even say cannibalizing) the popularity of Facebook to ensure the company remains relevant on mobile. Here is an excerpt from the interview with Zuckerberg:

“So Facebook is not one thing. On desktop where we grew up, the mode that made the most sense was to have a website, and to have different ways of sharing built as features within a website. So when we ported to mobile, that’s where we started — this one big blue app that approximated the desktop presence.

But I think on mobile, people want different things. Ease of access is so important. So is having the ability to control which things you get notifications for. And the real estate is so small. In mobile there’s a big premium on creating single-purpose first-class experiences.

So what we’re doing with Creative Labs is basically unbundling the big blue app.”

Jon Steinback, Foursquare’s VP of product experience, describes their decision to break existing Foursquare services into separate pieces as follows:

“I think mobile forced this fundamental switch. We were born in mobile but we were born in this idea that each mobile app was kind of like a web property bundled up for mobile. And as mobile usage has broadened and evolved you get individual experiences instead. You open an app to do a specific task and not as a gateway to a large complicated experience.”

Foursquare – one of the original mobile-first companies – is breaking services into separate stand-alone apps. Facebook, who in addition to beginning to build a suite of stand-alone, single-purpose apps (starting with Paper), is also acquire siloed apps. Last month it was Whatsapp and late last week the Finnish fitness tracking app Moves announced they had been acquired by Facebook. At the same time, you have companies like Snapchat – also a mobile-first company – expanding into adjacent service categories within their existing app structure.

Among other things, these moves speak to user engagement. In the early web environment – when our web experience resided exclusively on the desktop – user-engagement was primarily focused on length and depth of engagement. How long did a user stay on your web property and how deep (ie number of pages) did they go. But this traditional measure of engagement might be changing. Foursquare found that breaking well-defined services into separate apps led to shorter, but more frequent sessions. Frequency is become a key metric for mobile engagement.

Historically, when a large company like Facebook would acquire a smaller company it would integrate the intellectual property (most importantly the team).In some instances, the larger acquiring company might move users over before closing down what had been a competitive service to one of the larger firm’s offerings. Google has a long history of both shutdown companies they acquire but also integrating them into core Google offerings. The Blogger team was bought and brought over. Grand Central ultimately became Google Voice. And earlier this year, Google shutdown Bump – an app it had acquired last Fall. There are thousands of similar examples from Google, Apple, and a long host of companies both inside and outside of the tech industry.

But this model is changing – especially when it comes to mobile. This year Google acquired Waze and Nest. Both are continuing to operate on a stand-alone basis and likely will for the foreseeable future. And despite the generally held fear that Facebook will amalgamate all future acquisitions into the “big blue app,” Facebook continues to operate Instagram as a  stand-alone app.

In mobile we are are seeing conflicting evolutionary paths. The question remains why consumers appear to gravitate towards single-purpose mobile app experiences? Is it driven by time constraints and therefore developing mobile apps that are used for shorter (though more frequent) sessions is the key to success in mobile? Is it being able to launch a specific app “solution” quickly, perform a small finite number of operations, and exit the app as quickly as you entered? Or is it driven by the general inability to multi-task on a mobile device like we can on a PC?

While both of these drivers are likely in play, I think the answer is found more broadly in how mobile has evolved. This also begs the question if single-purpose apps are the steady-state for the mobile experience. If not, should we expect consolidation of apps over time and should we expect to see app service offerings expand? It is worth noting that consolidation is a strong element of industry structure. Most industries consolidate as they mature. This has been true in nearly every sector – from automotive to defense to aviation to consumer tech. More, this consolidation happens at every level of the supply chain. There are not only fewer automotive manufacturers today, there are also fewer tire manufacturers and  fewer gasoline system providers.

Many mobile apps – and certainly a majority of the successful ones – were built with a single purpose in mind. But this is because many of these mobile-first solutions were designed to provide newly discovered “needs” that developed as a result of having an always-on connected device in your pocket. The need created the service rather than the service being ported to the platform. Companies like Instagram, Flipboard, Pulse, Square, Rovio, ZeptoLabs, and yes Foursquare and Snapchat, were born “mobile first” and typically started with one core solution in mind. One of the big reasons we see so many mobile apps with just a single well-defined solution is because consumers are interested first and foremost in a first-class experience and these companies originally set-out to provide a single offering to resolve one well-defined problem.

But as mobile matures we are seeing a number of these mobile-first companies explore changing business models. Many of the early mobile-first companies, such as Shazam, are in the process of exploring how they can expand their growth opportunities. Companies typically expand either (1) geographically, (2) within their segment (vertically), or (3) by entering adjacent segments (horizontally). While many mobile-first companies started with a well-defined solution in mind, they will eventually expand offerings in order to produce growth opportunities. While it might be true today, it doesn’t have to always be true that mobile applications can only do one thing and one thing well. For example,  if Spotify had a strongly integrated Shazam-like feature then I would probably abandon the stand-alone Shazam app.

I’m not suggesting an unbundled mobile experience isn’t what consumers want. But we are very early in the evolution of mobile. The mature mobile platform will look very different than our current nascent mobile platform and right now conflicting forces are pulling in rather opposite directions.