Towards fewer apps: The rise of the uber-app
Don’t be fooled by Facebook’s ever-expanding empire of mobile apps. Today’s release of Snapchat-ripoff Poke is not only retrograde in the way it revives a dying remnant of the early Facebook vernacular, or in that it harks back to good old days of cloning. It also intensifies app-clutter on our smartphones at a time when real mobile innovation is pushing in the other direction.
The answer to the problem of app overload, as I have argued in recent posts about Google Now and Google Maps, is less not more. There are more than 1 million apps in the App Store, and 700,000 in Google Play. The average iPhone user has 41 apps on his device. Our mobile experience, still only five years old, is already fragmented, fiddly, and difficult to keep up-to-date. So far, the smartest solution we’ve been offered for fighting this unnavigable clutter is the old-fashioned folder.
That’s why we should give “uber-apps” a chance. These are apps that serve multiple functions. When it comes to communications and social networking, these mishmash apps are already a hit in Asia, despite having been around for less than two years. Collectively, Weixin (China), Nimbuzz (India), KakaoTalk (South Korea), and LINE (Japan) serve more than 400 million users, a number that stacks up pretty nicely compared to Facebook’s 600 million mobile users, especially given the latter’s head-start.
These messaging apps not only have chat functions, but they have in-built social graphs, media-sharing features, and timelines, which means they threaten pre-mobile era social networks, smaller messaging services, and even SMS.
Given our already-crowded mobile screens, Facebook's incremental addition of yet another messaging app is an unwelcome development. As well as Poke, we already have Facebook Messenger, Kik, Voxer, WhatsApp, and Snapchat. When is the Facebook fragmentation going to end? As well as its photos app (Camera), might we soon see a check-ins app to take on Foursquare? An offers app to take on Groupon? A video-calling app that leverages its partnership with Skype? Would it make sense for the Newsfeed to have its own app to better compete with Twitter?
Given the logic of Poke, Camera, and Messenger, Facebook could make a strong argument for each of those apps. Perhaps its goal is to own the homescreen of every mobile device on the planet, and it plans to get there by mass colonization. But it could just as easily go the other way by learning from what Asian messaging apps are doing and rolling everything into one simple but powerful product. Not only would that provide a centralized Facebook experience that improves on its existing offering and opens up fresh monetization opportunities, but it would also go a long way to addressing app overload.
What the multifunctional Google Maps proves is that an “uber-app” can be useful without doing just one thing and suffering from mission creep. Through its local search, transit information, and traffic data, Google Maps provides strong competition to a variety of big-deal apps, including Yelp, Waze, and Foursquare. Similarly, in China Dianping matches Yelp-like local listings and reviews with Groupon-like group-buying discounts. It seems to be working out – Dianping has nearly 50 million active monthly users. But conventional Silicon Valley wisdom suggests these broad-strokes approaches aren’t supposed to work for mobile.
Thanks to the Lean Startup model and its insistence on a “minimum viable product,” as well as the idea that an app should do one thing and one thing well, the early days of the smartphone era have inundated us with products that focus very intently on unique verticals. That approach has served many startups well, especially when it comes to addressing complicated real life issues, such as ridesharing and personal transportation (Lyft, Uber, Zimride), work forces (Exec, Cherry, TaskRabbit, Zaarly), and productivity (Evernote, Dropbox, Expensify). But for some areas, such as media sharing, social networking, communications, it might not make as much sense.
In Asia, those chat services that double as social networks are utterly dominating the mobile experience. China’s Weixin has grown to 200 million users. KakaoTalk and LINE have more than 50 million users each in South Korea and Japan respectively. India’s Nimbuzz has more than 100 million users. They have grown huge userbases by combining instant voice and text messaging with video calls, photosharing, timelines, gaming platforms, and payments and ecommerce platforms. Not only are they killing SMS, but they are threatening other social networks. Weixin, for instance, is eroding the popularity of the Facebook-like Sina Weibo, even though it too has a mobile app.
Skeptics might doubt that such a broad-brush approach would work in the US, given the assumption that most mobile users here prefer minimalism with in their apps. After all, that’s one of the factors that helped Instagram grow so fast and sell to Facebook for what was at the time a $1 billion price.
But if that’s the case, how do you explain Facebook? The social network has more than 100 million mobile users in the US but a cacophony of features – photosharing, newsfeed, messaging, groups, check-ins, events, and an app platform – all crammed into its flagship mobile app. The only problem is that that app is an awkward mobile replica of the Facebook desktop experience. On the other hand, Weixin, KakaoTalk, and the likes were built for smartphones with mobile behaviors in mind.
If something like Weixin took off in the US, or if Facebook was able to effectively craft its own equivalent, then it could spell trouble for niche communications and networking apps such as Path, Pair, Voxer, Kik, WhatsApp, and even media-sharing apps such as Instagram and Viddy.
We’ve been through this before. There are more than 600 million websites on the World Wide Web, yet the average person visits only 89 over the course of a month. Google, Yahoo, Facebook, and YouTube, and Wikipedia, among a few others, dominate our Internet use habits. As we have seen in the era of the desktop-mediated Web, consolidation happens. To some extent, all-in-one apps are a logical extension of what already exists on the Web. As the tenets of creative destruction suggest, a boom-and-bust cycle starts with many different companies and inevitably moves towards a realignment, as products fail and the big guys start to assert their dominance.
This consolidation will happen on mobile too, and it will be hurried along by the rise of Google Now-like services, and killer “uber-apps” like Google Maps and the Asian chat services. That could be bad news for startups hoping to get a foothold in the still-new computing paradigm, but it could also help alleviate the ongoing stress of app overload.
And if Facebook’s Poke does happen to become a lasting product, there’s a fair chance it ultimately be a part of a centralized mobile experience, and not living alone in its own little house, hogging more precious mobile real estate.