Just a year or two ago, some of the biggest mobile apps were splitting themselves apart.
Facebook moved private messages into a separate app and released several smaller-scale experiments such as Slingshot and Rooms. Dropbox released an app for photo sharing called Carousel, and Foursquare cleaved the game-like elements of its location-tagging service into a dedicated app called Swarm. Pundits declared that the "great unbundling" of apps had arrived.
But like many an explosive trend before it, app unbundling (or "constellations") is now starting to contract. Dropbox will shut down Carousel next year and bring some of its features into the main Dropbox app. Facebook is closing its Creative Labs unit that created several single-purpose apps, and its standalone Paper reading app hasn’t seen an update since March. Microsoft is shuttering Sunrise, the calendar app it purchased earlier this year, and will fold its features into Outlook. Meanwhile, Uber has been stuffing new use cases (such as Uber Eats) into its existing app, rather than creating multiple new apps from scratch.
Why has unbundling reversed itself so quickly? There are a few possible explanations, but also one overarching reason: Too often, the trend didn’t benefit the user more than an all-in-one app does.
Taylor Davidson, whose company, Foresight, helps build financial models for startups, was skeptical of app unbundling even as it was proliferating last year. In an August 2014 blog post, he noted that single-use apps from major players weren’t performing especially well.
In an interview, Davidson says Facebook’s Paper, Slingshot, and Poke are all perfect examples of the company trying to capture popular behavior that was happening beyond Facebook. Paper was a response to news reading apps like Flipboard, while Slingshot and Poke were attempts to pull off something like Snapchat. None of these came anywhere near having a shot at dethroning their inspirations.
"Most unbundled apps aren’t built because people want them," Davidson says. "They’re built because they’re driven by a corporate reason, and not a user-driven one."
The same could be said of Dropbox’s Carousel, which alongside the email client Mailbox was part of the company’s push to increase consumer cloud storage use through killer apps. Although Carousel offered some novel ways to share photos among private groups, the attempt to steal photo sharing away from social networks didn’t see much adoption; most people just kept using the main Dropbox app instead.
"You don’t see people caring about [sharing] enough as a single feature, in order to provide the base for an app like that to really work," Davidson says. With Dropbox’s mission shifting away from consumer storage and more toward workplace collaboration, Carousel no longer serves the business. Both it and Mailbox will shut down early next year.
One of the main justifications for app unbundling is that it reduces complexity and brings greater focus. But if the alternative is having twice or three times as many apps on the home screen, that’s not really any simpler.
"The argument of wanting to have discrete entry points that represent every bit of functionality that I would want to access is less about how things are packaged and more about how easy they are to access," says Javier Soltero, Microsoft’s corporate vice president of Outlook. "And proliferation of icons is just not a good thing."
Fortunately, iOS and Android are getting better at providing more entry points into apps. Soltero notes that Outlook users mostly interact with their calendars through notifications, and only open the app itself for email. To take that a step further, if you can create a calendar event with Siri, answer invites from the Notification Center, and track upcoming events through a widget, there aren’t a lot of scenarios left where a full calendar app is even necessary.
But just in case, Outlook is working on support for 3D Touch, the pressure-sensitive display technology on Apple’s latest iPhones. From the home screen, users will be able to press a little harder on the Outlook icon, and jump directly into the calendar instead of email.
Davidson believes this is just the beginning. With the rise of extensions and deep linking, apps will become a lot better at talking to one another without being coded specifically to do so. That means another primary motivation for unbundling—-being able to pass users between multiple apps from the same company—will become less of a distinct advantage.
"Apple and Google . . . they've changed the rules of how people connect with apps, which means in many ways the core rationale for unbundling is less popular," Davidson says.
Even if app unbundling isn’t as successful as the industry expected, stuffing too much functionality into one app has its risks. More features means a larger install size, slower load times, and a greater chance some of those features will be overlooked by users. So app makers must still figure out where to draw the line.
Microsoft, for instance, has no plans to merge Outlook and Wunderlist, the to-do app it acquired last summer. The base of Wunderlist users is large enough, and the interaction model distinct enough, that combining the two would be "ill-advised," Soltero says. "There’s only so much bundling you can do."
The idea of separating by usage model also explains why Foursquare booted check-ins, badges, and mayorships into Swarm. The main Foursquare app is more about providing local recommendations without any competitive elements. At the time of the split, only one in 20 people used the app for both purposes, spokeswoman Laura Covington says. There wasn’t much reason to have a single app for two completely different uses.
Noah Weiss, Foursquare’s head of product, says the company regrets not doing more to educate users about the breakup, and making Swarm look more like Foursquare at the outset "to avoid change aversion." But the company appears to have recovered. Both Foursquare recommendations and Swarm check-ins are now happening at a higher rate than ever, on a monthly (and in many cases daily) basis.
Even Facebook, which is winding down several smaller, experimental apps, seems to be on the right track with Messenger. By separating it from the main Facebook app, Messenger has now become its own platform, with a chat-based personal assistant and tie-ins to third-party apps. Stuffing these features into Facebook proper might’ve added too much complexity.
In the long run, there’s a chance that that the reversal of unbundling could again reverse itself in a way. With Google working on the concept of "app streaming," which lets users run apps over the Internet instead of installing them, the bundled app may again break down into individual components, beamed to our smartphones on-demand. "If you don't need to have the app installed behind it, unbundling becomes kind of moot," Foresight’s Davidson says.
Sure, on some level that just means reinventing the web page. But wasn’t the web—rather than an App Store—what Steve Jobs had in mind when Apple launched the iPhone, which didn't get native apps until a year after it debuted? The endless proliferation of apps, brought on by companies that want more and more of our home screens, might be the one thing that brings us full circle.