A few months ago, I opened up Foursquare and was told I couldn’t check in through the app anymore. I had to get another app, Swarm, built by Foursquare to do so. A week earlier I had noticed that Google had split its drive app into three separate standalone apps: Sheets, Slides, and Docs. This weekend meanwhile, I couldn’t read my Facebook messages on my mobile because all messages have now been moved to the social network’s messenger app.
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It has happened, big tech companies have entered the age of internet unbundling. What this means is the of breaking something into smaller entities. In technology unbundling or decoupling could be creating standalone services, content and products from an existing service.
I guess you could say Mary Meeker called it. Earlier this year when the queen of tech went through her thoughts on the state of the internet, unbundling was a major trend. It is happening, but does it need to happen to this extent? Maybe, but whether or not users actually prefer purpose-built apps, the age of internet unbundling is here.
Companies are building for the basic and easy functionalities that users want, not one app to rule them all. Meeker argues that this unbundling will lead to the rise of invisible apps that respond to hardware sensors for when the users need them rather than idle browsing.
Dethroning the king of social or securing its reign?
When Foursquare checked into the scene a few years ago, its founder Dennis Crowley it was crowned the king of social by Wired UK. In 2010, it was the social network that would determine how we lived our lives. All of a sudden our privacy wasn’t a problem anymore, we were happy to give up our location because Foursquare turned it into a game between friends.
Over the years the service evolved, it became about more than just checking in and stalking your friends. It became a recommendation service and a way for brands to promote their services. Get a free latte with your first check in at coffee shop X. The service began providing useful tips on places to eat and things to do in new cities based on user recommendations. All of these things were contained nicely in one app. The service needed to evolve its offering and now it has entered an era of duality.
Foursquare hasn’t just split off its service offering into two separate apps. It seems to be changing its business entirely. Swarm, the check in service, and Foursquare, the recommendation service seem to co-exist but somehow seem far removed from each other. Swarm requires its own log in, although you can opt to log in with Foursquare.
Foursquare itself has gone though a major redesign which, though beautiful, has over-complicated and over-customised the service.
One of the great things about the old Foursquare was that it allowed you to be somewhat off the grid when you weren’t checking in. Instead of relying on the user’s manually generated “check-ins” to suggest locations, the app now tracks your location all the time, even when the app is closed. That’s kinda creepy and a little unsettling and this is something that is also replicated on Swarm.
It made perfect sense for a location-based check in service to be a recommendation app as well. Right now, the splitting of both services seems clumsy and confusing, an attempt by Foursquare to start collecting apps like Facebook is. You can’t help but ask the question, why has Foursquare relegated its core business to a whole new app? It feels a little like going to the bank and being told you can’t get money here anymore go to this other place.
Facebook and the messaging conundrum
For months now, Facebook has been desperately trying to get users to move over to its messenger app. Some early users made the move when it was released and regretted it. Until a few days ago, there was no real reason to get the app, you could read your messages fine on Facebook’s mobile offering, not anymore.
The social network revamped its messenger app to include a host of new features that weren’t previously available in the messaging feature in the big Facebook app. Users can now video conference, share selfies and send group messages. Facebook wants users to add this app to the list of sticky apps that keep their attention. The service has long competed with the likes of WhatsApp and Snapchat in the messaging game, but to combat that it bought WhatsApp. So why do I still have to download messenger?
“Facebook is not one thing,” Mark Zuckerberg told The New York Times earlier this year. “On desktop where we grew up, the mode that made the most sense was to have a website, and to have different ways of sharing built as features within a website. So when we ported to mobile, that’s where we started — this one big blue app that approximated the desktop presence.”
For Facebook, and to some extent the same can be said for Foursquare, unbundling is about streamlining and providing better user experience. Facebook is looking to build a lighter Facebook, where users can go catch up with their friends lives and this separate messenger app gives them a place to talk. But is it really the right strategy for users?
Too many apps too little time
Though the messenger apps is extremely popular as is Swarm, it is not because users can’t wait to get stuck into the apps, they have no choice. If anything, users are less than thrilled by the change.
What is this Facebook messenger? I don't like it. Quit forcing change upon me, Facebook!
— Elizabeth Gribbins (@egribbs03) August 8, 2014
— Hannah (@hansyhobs) July 23, 2014
What these tech companies are doing, Google included with its Drive split, is asking users to create room on their phones for more apps and give their attention to new apps. Though the services themselves aren’t new, they feel different now that they require leaving the trusted environment for a new one. As great as unbundling might be for purposeful apps, it feels more like focus splitting for these companies and these apps.
What’s next? Is Twitter going to create a separate Direct Message app? SnapChat a separate app for your snaps? Instagram already launched its own foray into the instant messaging space with Bolt. There is no telling what’s next.