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Why aren’t App Constellations working? (Guest Post)

[Recently, I read this roundup of perspectives on “App Constellations” on the new social/professional news app Quibb. This is an emerging product strategy in mobile embraced by Facebook, Linkedin, Foursquare, Twitter, and others, and found it fascinating. Thanks to the authors below for sharing their opinions on this new approach. -Andrew]


Fred Wilson recently coined the term ‘App Constellations‘ to describe what he was seeing in the mobile app ecosystem with respect to distribution. Over the past few months, mobile companies have continued with this strategy, the idea being that standalone apps are better for mobile, versus the all encompassing platforms that dominate desktop experiences – and it’s a better position to own and control several of these key apps on any person’s device.

It has been interesting to watch as Dropbox, Facebook, and Foursquare experiment with this approach – but it doesn’t seem to be working, at least not yet. CB Insights shared some discouraging data last month, and things have only gotten worse over the past few weeks for the most recent apps to be put out by these big players:

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It’s important to note that none of the companies using this strategy have promoted their unbundled apps aggressively – beyond Facebook Messenger, which is seemingly the only app where this App Constellation approach is paying off:

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Toufeeq Hussain (Senior Product Manager at Storm8)

The App Constellation strategy works when you have a core resource which can be shared across multiple apps. Slingshot and Poke are attempting to create a new resource (reply-to-view-images for Slingshot and disappearing images for Poke) and hence isn’t really leveraging whats core to Facebook (social graph and shared photos). In the case of Slingshot, even the social graph had to recreated from scratch. So even though these apps get huge media attention when they launch, they slowly slide down the charts as there is nothing holding them up.

One company that has done a great job of using core resources and creating a “basket of apps” is Evernote. It currently has Evernote Hello, Evernote Food, Skitch and Penultimate. Each of these are focused around helping users create more notes and thereby getting more usage of the core Evernote product. Of course, not all of Evernote’s apps are in the top-50 lists but they are targeted mainly at new users who are looking for more specific solutions to note taking. Carousel is on the same lines but my feeling is that Dropbox needs more apps that read data stored in Dropbox than contributing to it. If the goal is to contribute to the Dropbox then it needs to be something more than just syncing photo/videos as the default Dropbox app already performs that.

The Asian messenger apps use the contact list as the core resource across any apps integrated into LINE or WeChat. Invitations are sent through the core messaging app but specific functions are performed in the corresponding apps. Games, photo sharing, stickers all have specific apps but use the core LINE or Wechat identity and social graph to seamlessly work across multiple apps.

In conclusion, though its very valuable for a Facebook or Dropbox to shoot for “stars” and build constellations, what we have seen from companies like Evernote and the asian messenger apps (LINE, WeChat) is that a “basket of apps” approach that leverages a common core resource between other apps might actually be a more scalable strategy. Its very hard engineering “stars” – a lot of things need to fall in place to be a top-50 free app, a better strategy for Facebook might be to play to its strengths than alienating new apps from core FB resources.

Bubba Murarka (Managing Director at Draper Fisher Jurvetson)
App constellations are being deployed because the problem of distribution on mobile is “solved” in the sense that large incumbent app owner, and mobile marketers with sufficient resources, can predictably drive installs of their other apps via well known set of steps that includes cross promotion, cross linking, merchandising on mobile web & of course paid distribution. One of the best examples of this is how Facebook has managed to drive massive number of installs of the standalone Messenger app via the main Facebook integration. I would go so far as to say that if an unbundled app from a large incumbent does not to have a massive install base it is intentional to enable the app to mature before investing in driving distribution. FWIW, I am not saying distribution for younger companies without existing massive install bases, well known brand names or meaningful financial resources is “solved” yet…because, well it is not.

As for the value of this strategy it is easy to say it doesn’t work but that is not nuanced enough analysis of why companies pursue this approach. The multi app strategy allows more experimentation, different release cycles and tailored experiences to drive deeper engagement. This allows faster iterations for nascent product lines which is critical for finding product market fit (traditionally the key advantage startups have over large incumbents). Using Facebook Messenger, as an example again, FB only focused on driving installs 3 years after they had initially released the standalone app. I’d hypothesize that once Dropbox wants to drive installations of their app constellation they will have no problems – “Install Carousel and get 500 free MBs of storage” or “To sync your photos to Dropbox you need to install Carousel”. In summary, I’d suggest the best way to assess the value of this strategy is not to look at installs as the only measure of success.

Casey Winters (Growth Marketing Manager at Pinterest)
App unbundling or constellations are a nuanced strategy that I think needs a few, rare conditions to be effective. One is that your main app needs to be a top app already, with little room to improve. Then, it is advantageous to create a new app to see if you can take another top spot on the App Store/Google Play, and another icon on a user’s phone (see my blog post for more details on that strategy).

When you have this scenario, it’s little risk to create a new app, but it means that a very successful company needs to launch a new app and have it be an immediate success. You don’t have the advantage of iterating and starting small and working your way up to popularity like most apps do. It’s very tough to launch new apps this way and be successful because a ton of people try the app the moment it’s launched before you have any market feedback. Typically, people try it, discard it, and you don’t get another shot. So what ends up happening is that popular apps buy newly popular apps instead.

The only way I have seen the constellation strategy work is if the new app was already a core feature of the main app and is then unbundled. Facebook Messenger is an example of this. Since the feature is already popular inside Facebook, and the new app is now where that functionality lives (and that functionality hasn’t meaningfully changed), the new app is successful. Where foursquare erred is the the check-in was declining in popularity in their app, and when they unbundled it they changed the functionality meaningfully to upset those core users.

Alex Schiff (CEO and Co-Founder of Fetchnotes)
Unbundling into “app constellations” is understandably a compelling strategy. More real estate, more targeted products, and more mind share — hooray!

The thing is, outside the tech community most people just don’t download that many apps. Statista put out a report late last year that on average, US smartphone holders have installed 26 apps. To put that in perspective, that’s just over a page of apps on an iPhone 5 screen. Not only are most people not reading about or searching for apps, but when they do hear about one from a company they know, the default behavior is not, “Wowee! I already have Facebook – I should start using their new app!”

Putting the apathy of mainstream consumers aside, there’s a much deeper problem with the whole unbundling strategy. It only works if it’s a fundamentally distinct behavior being segmented into a stand-alone application. I think Facebook Messenger is a great example of unbundling that worked — messaging is very different from browsing stories and stalking people. Separating the two made both my messaging and social voyeurism (let’s be real, that’s what Facebook is for) experience better. Moreover, Facebook wanted to be your go-to messaging utility. That couldn’t happen, I believe, unless it was its own application.

Today, over 200M people use Messenger.

Now compare that with the launch of Paper. Paper, for all intents and purposes, has the same core features as Facebook proper – you browse stories, accept friend requests, view notifications, etc. More recently, they even added back in some of the features they left out, like birthdays and events. The major difference is UI (it’s beautiful) and a philosophical focus on stories over people.

In other words, it’s just a different approach to Facebook. Most users I’ve talked to use Paper instead of Facebook, not alongside it. Since Paper offers pretty much the same functionality as Facebook proper, most people just aren’t that motivated to try it out. As of June 11, Paper has only 119,000 MAUs. Frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised if Paper was just a test for a new approach they’ll be bringing to the core Facebook app. Unless Facebook strips Paper down to be stories and stories alone, I don’t see it surviving long-term as a stand-alone app.

There are certainly more granular product reasons Slingshot, Paper, Carousel, etc. haven’t taken off. However, across any app constellation effort, the products need to compliment — not cannibalize — each other.

Messenger does exactly that. Paper doesn’t.

Adam Sigel (Product Manager at Aereo)
App constellations, unbundling, whatever you want to call it, will ultimately yield a better experience for mobile users and better business practice for the companies making apps, but we’re going to have to work through some pain in the short-term. The trouble for now is that app constellations are ahead of the rest of the mobile experience.

It starts with app discovery. The App Store (for iOS especially) is largely leaderboard driven, and it’s hard to crack into the top ranks, especially for non-gaming apps. One “north star” app in a constellation makes it much easier to build satellites around, and we’re seeing that with Facebook, Dropbox, Google, LinkedIn, and Amazon. As Fred Wilson wrote, this creates a “rich get richer” scenario and creates enormous challenges for newcomers.

Having different apps optimized for different use cases is great, but managing all those apps is a pain. As I mentioned in a blog post about invisible apps, the mobile OSes need a way to have apps that exist outside the homescreen. “Winning the homescreen” just doesn’t make sense for lots of apps (finance and travel, to name a few). iOS is the worst offender here compared to Android and Windows Phone, but this could be addressed a number of ways including design changes, gesture controls, or anticipatory computing.

Even though more apps are building in deep linking capabilities—a very good thing for the mobile experience overall—app switching still stinks. It’s visually jarring to a lot of users, and app management is still a power user skill. To go with the typical early majority example, my parents don’t double-tap the home button to switch apps, nor do they put very much thought into which apps go on which screen or in which folders.

These are temporary imbalances, and recent announcements from Google and Apple suggest directional improvement. As app discovery improves, mobile OSes continue to evolve, and the market matures, we’ll get new, more sophisticated and seamless mobile experiences.

There’s even more discussion in the comments, on Quibb.

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