The Rise of the Single-purpose app
A new trend emerged during the last couple of weeks when Facebook launched their Messenger app. By unbundling messaging into a new, independent native app Facebook effectively blocked you from using messaging as before unless you install this new app. Soon after Foursquare also announced Swarn, a new app that splits the Foursquare experience in two by separating the discovery of places from the “friend” experience.
This is, in my opinion a pivotal point in mobile app ecosystems.
Single purpose apps are mobile apps that focus on solving only one very specific user need. As a contrast, fat apps try to provide all the features of one concept inside one single native app.
Single purpose apps aren’t new. Instragram does it. Yahoo! took a deep breath away from nothingness with their awesome weather app. Google recently also decided to split the Sheets app from Google Drive on iPad.
Why is this happening? Mobile domination is a war happening on multiple fronts:
Limited attention span
You’re likely to spent 2 hours and 19 minutes per day on your phone if you’re an average mobile user and native apps are gaining momentum 86% of the mobile experience against an ever diminishing Mobile Web experience). Growth at scale is only possible when a certain company owns a substantial amount of the time you spent on your mobile.
A precious real estate
Notifications push for engagement. Facebook knows that’s easier to notify you when they own your home screen as well, overlaying it with what’s effectively a pop-up reminding you about a new incoming message.
You will only use one app per category
People don’t use multiple apps to check their email. The same happens across other categories. When Foursquare goes for a fight against Yelp, they know they need to become the app of choice on the location discovery and rating space. Having those features buried in a fat Foursquare experience doesn’t help.
Messaging is more than just text and Facebooks knows that. Messaging competes with Email, Skype, Snapchat, etc.. To own your digital communication needs they really need to go head-first against those guys. A new app allows them to have the focus required to integrate and push multiple types of communication toward their user-base.
SEO now happens on the app store
Roelof Botha recently mentioned how Evernote struggles to be recognized for what they do on app stores. While “document scanning” is a core feature, they are not a top result when a user specifically searches for it. By breaking down apps into verticals (like Cooking) and/or user needs (like scanning) Evernote is able to fight for the top ranking under certain keywords.
Growing as a company is hard
Foursquare may also be having trouble on an organizational level. Scaling product teams is hard. Breaking them down into functional areas is usually an option but soon they start fighting for resources and relevancy within the app’s user experience. Foursquare effectively spin-off a part of the organization by creating another app while maintaining organizational synergies like server operations shared across both.
Pivot in style
We may find out sooner or later that Foursquare effectively pivoted. When companies get too big to fail because they raised too much money (Foursquare raised $162M+) acquisitions by others stop making sense. Their best option becomes pivoting but that takes time and they can’t afford hard choices that’d lose their current audience. I believe Foursquare is trying to own a new category so they can later divest of it legacy, if needed.
What does this means for you? If you build products, you’ll see that small startups have a hard time playing this game but you may study your space closely to find interesting niches. For instance, Danish-based Everplaces also builds apps for businesses, effectively expanding their reach into new geographies while self-funding their operations.
Larger companies are clearly aware that they need to own every single minute of your time on mobile so small startups can only play against that by radically out-innovating.