Foursquare has split its mobile application into two applications — one focused on discovering new places and the other, called Swarm, focused on helping users share their location with their friends. The sundering follows the realization that 95 percent of the old application’s users opened the app to do one thing or the other, which meant that half of the app’s features were wasted on them.
The company isn’t alone in its decision to break an application into multiple parts. Dropbox released Carousel in April to offer an image-focused application separate from its main app. Facebook is removing chat features from its main application to focus on Messenger. Google has brought its document and spreadsheet editing software out of the main Google Drive app. Monolithic software capable of doing everything is being replaced with application suites that focus on doing one thing — or just a couple things — better than their cluttered counterparts.
Those technological monoliths were built to make it easier for companies to add new features to their mobile products. It’s hard to get people to notice another new application — it’s easier to add a feature to an application they’ve already installed and draw attention to it from there. Many companies favored quantity over quality, leading to bloated software that tried to appeal to everyone instead of lean applications devoted to serving a specific function for fewer users.
The creation of those bloated applications was justified with claims that they would defend against “app burnout,” a fictional affliction said to affect people who had grown weary of all the mobile applications available on most modern smartphone platforms. Why should people install four applications when they can download one? Aren’t most of them sick of apps anyway? Better to deal with a clunky monolith than to spend time digging through app marketplaces.
But claims of app burnout carried less water than the dihydrogen monoxide hoax. Most people haven’t grown sick of downloading new applications — they actually came to love them even more, with more consumers replacing old applications and downloading new software in 2013 than ever before. Tech reporters might be sick of new software, but consumers certainly aren’t.
So it makes sense for companies to split their old applications into multiple parts. If people are willing to download more applications than before, and it’s easier to create a series of apps that each do one thing better than the old applications did anything, why not break them apart? It’s better to offer multiple applications that serve a single purpose very well than it is to have a single app that tries to do multiple things and becomes more complicated than it should be.
Foursquare understands that. So do Facebook, Google, Dropbox, and other companies that have focused on creating a suite of great apps instead of one mediocre product. Building a monolith to everything a company has to offer might stroke the company’s ego, but it doesn’t always fit the way consumers really use apps.
[Art by Hallie Bateman for Pando]