Want to Upgrade Your App? Consider Breaking It Apart

Swarm by Fourquare Logo

Facebook, Foursquare and other tech companies are taking an odd approach to upgrading their core apps.

Instead of adding new features or shinier buttons, these firms are breaking their apps apart. Foursquare split off many of its main app’s social functions into Swarm, which focuses on friends and check-ins; the new, leaner Foursquare app will allow users to search for nearby restaurants and other points of interest. Facebook seems determined to parse its “main” mobile app into as many standalone modules as possible, including Paper and Messenger (to supplement, it’s also buying individual apps such as Instagram and WhatsApp). Meanwhile, rumors abound that Google will begin building standalone mobile apps for Hangouts and other functions previously bundled with its Google+ social network.

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“We had been taking on a little bit of a mission impossible,” Noah Weiss, Foursquare’s vice president of product management, told The Verge, “trying to make a single-purpose mobile app that actually had two purposes.” Splitting its app into two, he added, could better satisfy customers who found the old software somewhat cumbersome; but the real question might be whether the split-and-improved Foursquare can fend off Facebook, Yelp, and all the other IT firms that want a piece of its territory.

Or as Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg put it during an earnings call earlier this year: “Our vision for Facebook is to create a set of products that help you share any kind of content you want with any audience you want.” In this increasingly mobile-centric era, you can reach a bigger audience by offering a multiplicity of single-function apps to as many people as possible, rather than force people to tap through multiple screens on a “main” app.

Behind the scenes, development on smaller apps can proceed rapidly, in contrast to hefty “main” apps that can take a lot of time—and internal handwringing—to adjust in even the smallest ways. The release cycle of smaller apps also provides all sorts of marketing opportunities—it’s difficult to promote a longstanding app as somehow “new” and “shiny,” but it’s ridiculously easy to sell a just-released module as a “revolution” in how a company does business (look at the positive press Facebook received when it launched Paper, which did little more than serve up the user’s newsfeed in an image-centric fashion).

If you’re a developer whose app has managed to attract a significant following, and you’re thinking about your next stage of growth, consider whether breaking apart your app’s functionality would serve your purposes. But beware: not all brands are prominent enough to endure that split.

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Image: Foursquare

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