Foursquare and Facebook show that platforms matter more than apps

the monolith
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Unbundling is the new black.

Platforms are splitting apart, everywhere you look. 

Google has launched native Google Docs, Sheets, and Slides mobile apps with offline editing. Facebook spun Messenger off from its core mobile app, with the promise of more unbundling efforts yet to come. Dropbox has its Mailbox and Carousel mail and photo sharing apps separate from its core sync-and-share platform. Foursquare today announced that it's splitting off its best-known feature -- location check-ins -- into a new app called Swarm as it seeks to become a local search engine. 

This may seem counterintuitive when you consider that most, if not all, of these companies (especially Facebook and Google) spent years trying to convince us that they were one-stop shops designed to be the central hub of your digital life. But a closer inspection shows that it's really just another example of how, when it comes to mobility, the specific app isn't nearly as important as the data underpinning it.

Let's use Facebook as a case study. Back in December, a Business Insider editorial claimed that the social network was collapsing under its own weight -- that the sheer amount of content shared on the social network basically made the core News Feed into an unnavigable slog that only gets worse as the platform grows and grows. At the time, it seemed that it was unfixable: How could a social network tell its users not to share content? 

The answer, it turned out, was not to stop them from sharing, but instead changing how that content was accessed. The Instagram acquisition helps Facebook get photos into its increasingly massive overmind, but its users make the active decision to look only at photos when they open the app. Similarly, Facebook Messenger is for those users who only want to talk to people, not find out what level of Candy Crush their old coworker has reached. It empowers users to only get the functionality they want, without having to touch the parts they don't. 

That's a consumer example, but the idea carries over to enterprise-focused companies, too. Those Google apps let people install the portions of the Google Apps productivity suite they want without worrying about those they don't. Dropbox's Mailbox is better e-mail for people who just want to worry about e-mail. 

As the API economy and developer-friendliness becomes the key driver behind success in the enterprise space, the day of the "one single app" are numbered. It's for the exact same reason that Dropbox and Box are turning to third-party developers to expand their respective customer bases -- no single app can do everything. But with a robust platform on the back end, accessing these services in unique, focused ways, users are happy, user acquisition and retention shoot up, and everybody wins. 

In that regard, big platform providers like Google are dogfooding philosophy as much as they are testing technology -- they're doing as much development on their own platform as their third-party developers are. The age of the monolithic app is going to be over sooner rather than later, but the era of the platform is only beginning. 

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