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App Economy

Inbox, Paper, And Sway: Why Tech Giants Are Suddenly Reinventing Their Core Apps

Google, Microsoft, and Facebook have all launched new takes on old apps this year, and it's not exactly a coincidence.

If you look through the App Store reviews for Facebook Paper, it doesn't take long to find the recurring theme.

"So much better than the main Facebook app," one user wrote.

"It is light years ahead of the standard Facebook app and everyone that can should delete the native app and use this one," wrote another.

A third user was blunt: "Facebook should strongly consider making Paper its official iOS app instead of the awful main app."

With Paper, Facebook has effectively rebooted its core News Feed product on the iPhone. Although Paper is built largely around the same photos and status updates you get from Facebook's main app, it doesn't feel like something that was merely retrofitted to the phone. It emphasizes large photos and swipe gestures, and lets you add general news sections for when you need a break from your friends. It could easily stand in for the main Facebook experience, even if it doesn't have all the same features.

Facebook isn't alone. Last week, Google announced Inbox, which is built around Gmail but with a different approach to displaying and handling messages. Instead of showing every email in reverse-chronological order, Inbox intelligently sorts messages into groups like "Travel" and "Purchases," and in a nod to Dropbox's Mailbox, lets you snooze or pin important emails for later.

On October 1, Microsoft revealed Sway, a modern take on presentations with an emphasis on style and ease of use. Whereas PowerPoint makes you obsess over every line and transition, Sway does all the heavy lifting automatically, and it's designed to be just usable on phones as it is in a web browser.

While I hate to pull the old "three is a trend" journalist hat trick, it seems like more than a coincidence when Google, Facebook, and Microsoft reinvent core apps in such close proximity. And when you look closer at the motivations and goals of each project, there's more than just a little overlap.

Mobile-First, For Real

The idea that companies should prioritize phones and tablets over old-school PCs isn't new, and companies like Google claim to have been doing it for years. But what they're finally realizing is that mobile-first means more than just making a finely polished app for touch screens. User behavior isn't the same on phones as it is on PCs, which means the app itself must be fundamentally different.

Microsoft's Sway, for instance, throws out most of the robust tools that PowerPoint offers, and instead focuses on letting people throw things together quickly, even on a smartphone. It's sort of like using templates in PowerPoint, except that each slide can adapt to the amount of photos and text you put in it, and will format itself automatically for any screen size.

"We thought there's an opportunity now to make a real, robust content creation tool that's basically a mobile-only tool for those people who only have mobile phones," says Chris Pratley, Sway's lead engineer.

Microsoft Sway

Google also acknowledged that when you're on a mobile device, the nature of email changes. "[We] get more email now than ever, important information is buried inside messages, and our most important tasks can slip through the cracks—especially when we’re working on our phones," senior vice president Sundar Pichai wrote in a blog post. One of Inbox's answers to this problem is the ability to hit Snooze on an email until you arrive at a specific location, such as your office.

While Google Inbox and Microsoft Sway both offer web versions, Facebook went to the extreme with Paper and only built the app for iPhones. As engineering lead Scott Goodson explained in a March blog post, this constraint led to a completely new engineering approach, as the company ditched common interface elements like buttons and borders. "In setting out to create Paper, our goal was not to pick apart past assumptions, but to start clean," Goodson wrote.

Facebook Paper

Enter The Algorithm

As these companies get serious about addressing mobile user behavior, a common thread emerges: In exchange for saving users time, they're taking away some control and letting their algorithms do the work.

Pratley said Microsoft has long dreamed of letting Office users automate certain tasks, like defining a document's color palette or header appearance. But that wasn't always technically possible, and people became attached to specifying every last detail of their Word documents and PowerPoint slides. Sway is a way of starting from scratch. It uses algorithms to figure out what's on the page, and adjusts its layouts for the best fit. Over time, those algorithms will get better by learning from user behavior.

"I had this realization some years ago, if you could just change people's concept of what they're trying to do to what they really say they want, which is quickly get something that looks good, what if we could deliver that for them?" Pratley said. "Would they be willing to say, 'I guess it doesn't matter so much that I can't position everything exactly in a certain place?'"

Google Inbox

Google has tried bringing algorithmic automation to Gmail before, with varying degrees of success. In 2010, the company introduced Priority Inbox, which attempted to deduce the most important emails and bring them to the top. This feature is still around, but was effectively replaced by inbox tabs—itself a polarizing feature—in 2013.

Like Sway, Inbox is a reboot of those earlier concepts. It expands on the idea of tabs with new categories, and floats entire "bundles" of these categories to the top of your Inbox when necessary. And in another algorithmic flourish, Inbox will show relevant information alongside your reminders, such as a number for the hardware store you're supposed to call.

Facebook's Paper, meanwhile, is a mix of algorithmic and human-curated stories, but with a key difference from the main app: When looking at the News Feed, there isn't even an option to view things in chronological order. And yet, you don't see people complaining about this, like they do with the main app. In all cases, people are more accepting of algorithms and automation when the product is designed around them.

Not Playing Around

Of course, Facebook, Microsoft, and Google aren't pitching their latest creations as total replacements for what came before. But they're not treating these apps as experiments, either.

"We're just getting started with Inbox, and this is something that we are investing in for the long term," Garrick Toubassi, Gmail and Inbox's engineering director, said in a statement. (The company declined to set up an interview.) "We spent two years really developing Inbox, and we've been excited to see the positive response so far from users."

Facebook also declined an interview, but has shown similar commitment to Paper in past comments. "We're really focused with Paper on playing out this vision and continuing to build it for the long run," Product Manager Michael Reckhow told Mashable earlier this year. "As we start to build it, I think people will really start to see what we're doing."

Microsoft's Pratley was more up-front. The goal with Sway is to roll it into Office and add a freemium business model (though he said the free version will become even more powerful than it is now). While it's possible that some features of Sway could make their way into PowerPoint, he sees them coexisting as separate products.

"I don't think there's going to be any dip in demand for the capabilities of PowerPoint," Pratley said. "But what we found was, if somebody said 'what I value more is speed, and looking good without effort, and maybe I'm willing to in return live with a little bit less customization capability,' then Sway can work for them."