People expect their devices to do certain things. A smartphone isn’t complete without an email app, a Web browser, or any of the other software that makes a device a tool, a toy, and everything in between. These applications and services are standard on many devices, from cheap smartphones to high-end, flagship handsets and tablets. They are not a product unto themselves, they are a feature that makes the real product (the device) better.
Or, that’s how some view the relationship between “feature” and “product,” a blurry distinction even Gauss couldn’t make sense of. A product is naturally borne from its features; the distinction seems to be whether or not a “feature” can stand on its own or if it needs to latch on to a bigger product in order to justify itself.
Steve Jobs famously declared Dropbox a feature, not a product, when the startup declined Apple’s acquisition offer. Farhad Manjoo agreed with Jobs’ assessment last year, writing: “To do what we all want it to do, syncing has to be baked in to all the gadgets we use today. OS companies are warming to that notion—and they don’t need Dropbox to do it.” Dropbox isn’t something to be sold by itself, then, it’s something meant to ship with a group of other features and products.
This view doesn’t explain Dropbox’s success, though, or the success of other services and tools that could be classified as tag-alongs or “me too” software. Anything that attracts 100 million users is obviously doing something right, even if it’s been dismissed by both Apple and Microsoft, and that “something” is likely related to Dropbox’s quality, especially compared against other services.
Developing and releasing a tool as a standalone product instead of a tag-along feature and having to convince users to look beyond free, built-in options seems to produce better results than the alternative. The companies who bet everything on perfecting one single “feature” build higher-quality software. They have to, if they want to remain a company — neither Apple nor Microsoft, or any other large company, is in a position that requires constant improvement to every aspect of a product simply to stay alive.
Saying that iCloud, Apple’s take on what data syncing should look like on its iOS and OS X platforms, has been a letdown would be an understatement. The service is unreliable, sloppily introduced a new, app-centric focus on data that frustrates anyone who wants to work across apps, and is just a buggy mess. The company hasn’t managed to fix iCloud or other persistent issues, like iTunes or Game Center despite years of waiting and other companies’ efforts. Why? Because it doesn’t have to. Apple is selling customers a laptop, not a data syncing service.
Enter Dropbox. The service is famed for its stability, has its roots firmly planted in many other apps and services, and continually rolls out new and better features despite its status as the de facto sync solution for anyone who looks past the blue sky promises of iCloud. It has to — without constant refinement, some other product could come in and take Dropbox’s place.
Other apps and services face the same problem. Having to deal with a sub-par calendar management app doesn’t bother Apple any. The company has actually neglected or gotten worse at serving that category, offering a bare-bones, leather-heavy solution and then leaving it at that. Flexibits, makers of the popular Fantastical calendaring tool, couldn’t do that. They’d go out of business, so they work to introduce new and better features before a competitor can do the same.
We can watch this battle between a platform maker declaring a product “good enough” and an outside party or competitor one-upping it play out in other areas as well.
Take App.net, the social network users pay $36 per year or $5 per month to access. The company recently introduced new data storage options, creating a social-storage hybrid that can be used, according to founder Dalton Caldwell, to create just about anything.
Could you imagine Twitter introducing a similar feature? Sure, it’s got the advantage of having a larger user base on its side, but a company whose error message — the infamous Fail Whale — plagues its service years after amassing scores of cash and talent probably wouldn’t be trusted with powering a platform that holds someone else’s data.
Twitter, like iCloud (for most users), is free. The company makes its money by advertising to its users, and, as the old adage goes, that makes you and I the company’s main product. App.net, as with Dropbox and Fantastical, requires a monetary commitment from its users, which means that it has to sweeten the pot and offer a harder sell than “it’s free.”
Dismissing any of these services as something that can only work if it augments something else is foolish. That’s what technology is. A feature is only as good as the attention and care that it receives, its usefulness determined by the amount of elbow grease and sweat that went into its creation.
Companies that bet their existence on a feature as a stand-alone product instead of a part favor for purchasing something else have more to lose than their counterparts. If iCloud doesn’t work Apple can shrug it off, say that it works often enough to be worth it to most of its users, and then use the service to help sell its real money-makers, the aluminum-and-glass products that carry its logo on the back.
If Dropbox, or App.net, or Fantastical, doesn’t work, they’re done. Finished. Kaput. And that means that they care more about getting their product right and proving their value. Developing “features” isn’t a hobby or “area of intense interest” for these companies — it’s their livelihood.
Which would you rather rely on?