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Dear App-Splitters: Consider the Consumer

The "conscious uncoupling" of apps could come at a cost to consumers.

Vjeran Pavic

App splits. Multi-app strategies. Constellations. Fragmentation. Conscious uncoupling.

Whatever you want to call it, there has been plenty of commentary around the trend of tech companies launching separate mobile apps that perform a specific function, rather than bunching all features into one bloated app. Facebook has done this with its Messenger and Paper apps; Foursquare now has a new app for check-ins called Swarm; and Dropbox offers a dedicated photo-storage app called Carousel. Evernote has had a multi-app strategy for a few years now, and Google’s doing it, too.

But a lot of this analysis has been focused on what it means for the app makers who are taking this approach, and whether it’s a good business strategy for them.

Let’s not forget an important part of the equation here: The users. The people who download and swipe and flick and freely give their personal data over to these apps.

After making a conscious effort to use “other” apps this week, I see how a multi-app strategy might make sense. I might even like it, when it’s done right (which surprises me, because I initially reacted to Facebook Messenger and Foursquare Swarm with a “Get off my lawn!” kind of vigor).

But to be sure, there are some obvious downsides to all of this app mania. And there are indications that some of the app makers, while pioneering their own mobile strategies, aren’t necessarily considering whether it’s the best experience for consumers.

The first and most obvious downside of app splits, to me, is simply the fact there are more apps. More apps mean more app downloads, more icons, more sign-up and login processes, more smartphone memory and battery life being used up, more multitasking, more, more, more stuff driving us to distraction. The average smartphone user already downloads more than 25 apps onto his or her phone.

Of course, there’s always spotlight search on the smartphone to quickly pull up an app, and I know I’m probably not the only person who is relying on this more. But that’s like saying it’s fine if you have a cluttered or poorly designed desktop, because you can always use command-F.

And right now, I feel like I’ve hit my app cap. Actually, I have: When downloading one of Google’s apps the other day, I hit my smartphone’s storage limit.

Then there’s the pain of switching. A few weeks ago, I was out to dinner when my dinner companion and I both went to “check in” on Foursquare. I was able to check in; he saw a prompt to download Swarm, the company’s new app, and was unable to use the main feature of Foursquare without downloading a new, separate app. He put his phone away.

I have since downloaded both the new Foursquare, which just launched last week, and Swarm, the company’s check-in app; which means that I now have to switch back and forth between the apps when I want to both search for a local venue and then check in to a place.

Just last week, Facebook started requiring users to download its Messenger app if they wanted to message on Facebook — requiring more switching between apps. Recent changes to Google’s suite of productivity apps means there are now separate apps for file management (Drive) and editing documents (Docs and Sheets).

Old habits die hard. Eventually, we might forget about these annoyances. Advances in mobile operating systems might improve this experience as well. But right now, having to switch to new apps and switch between apps is still a pain point.

More app downloads also means accepting more app permissions and trying to parse terms of service agreements (assuming you even read these; one venture capitalist I spoke to for this column joked that the only people who pay attention to these are lawyers and journalists).

There are a couple of blog posts out there that have been getting attention for listing Facebook’s new “terms of service” for Messenger. These are actually app permissions, which are worded by the maker of the mobile operating system, not the app maker. The terms of service are set by the app maker.

But in either case, the terms of service agreements are so comically long-winded and convoluted that it’s hard for any consumer to really know what kind of data is being shared between apps. In general, the data is often being shared between apps, even if you’ve sworn off one versus another. You’re still logging in to that service. For example, Messenger is subject to the same data use policies and terms as Facebook, and there aren’t any restrictions on sharing data between Messenger and Facebook.

Foursquare does a better job, at least, of communicating this: During the Swarm sign-in process, the app clearly states that “both apps use the same account information, like your check-ins and friends lists,” and that your Swarm check-ins will feed into the Foursquare recommendation engine.

Of course, there are some benefits to all of this app-splitting. It could mean a more streamlined, focused experience in an app. Evernote has a handful of apps in its ecosystem, and it makes sense that a few of them exist as separate apps. I actually like the Facebook Messenger app, mostly for the fact that I’m not bothered with other Facebook content while I’m in it (same with Facebook’s separate Paper app, when I remember to use it).

In many ways, the links between an offshoot app and the “main” app make sense: If I were to upload my mobile photos to Carousel, for example, it makes sense that they would be backed up to my Dropbox.

But it seems some app-makers need to consider a few things before they force loyal users into a multi-app commitment: Does an entirely separate app make sense? Am I communicating with the user exactly why we’re making them download something else, and what it means? And will the company be able to fully support all of its apps in the long term? Otherwise, it’s the consumers who suffer the multi-headaches from the multi-apps.

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