Last week, I read about Facebook shutting down Creative Labs. This, along with Dropbox’s recent announcement that they are shutting down Carousel and Mailbox, made me reflect on the hype that has surrounded constellation apps for the last 2 years.
As recently as 6 months ago, pundits were touting the power of having a constellation of apps on a user’s mobile device. This model was driven out of a philosophy of “owning the home screen,” in which one company would have multiple standalone apps that fulfilled a user’s needs. Each individual app was focused on a separate function (email, photos, messaging, etc.) It improved the user experience, and it boxed out other apps from occupying those positions on the home screen.
The tricky part is that it’s hard to break into the mobile app market. It’s hard for each of the 10s of thousands of mobile apps that are launched each year. Consumer tastes are fickle - one month an app can be trending and the next it can be lost and forgotten.
Big companies sometimes forget this - they fall into the trap of thinking that they can easily create an app that fulfills a user’s needs, and because of their brand’s broad share of mind, it will become adopted by all of their customers. But of course it doesn’t work this way. And even when companies with a solid user base like Mailbox exit to a major player, it doesn’t mean that the acquirer (Dropbox) will continue to help it gain adoption simply because the acquirer has hundreds of millions of users.
I think there are a few takeaways here. First, we should call out the “Google can go do this themselves” retort as the mindless, knee jerk response that it is. Because even if Google or Facebook wanted to, it doesn’t mean they would be successful. And second, building a mobile app is hard. It’s hard for first time founders and hard for multi-billion dollar companies. Finding that perfect product/market fit is part smarts, part hustle and part luck. And it’s not clear that it can be easily reproducible, even by those with exceedingly large pockets.