Is app ‘unbundling’ the future? By John Kimbell

June 5, 2014

It’s a development that was easy to miss, but one that could potentially be the beginning of the simplification and ‘unbundling’ of smartphone apps, that could revolutionise the ‘app landscape’ in the coming months.

foursquare stunned many of its 45m registered users last month when it announced that it would unbundle elements of the app and launch a new app called ‘Swarm’ for staying in touch with friends – keeping the original Foursquare app as a ‘discovery’ platform.

foursquare founder Dennis Crowley said “I wouldn’t say we are deemphasizing the check-in. We have gotten really good at making proactive recommendations, search and knowing where friends are (check-in), but we’ve turned into a swiss army knife type of product. We believe that the best apps out there are the ones with a single-case use that can be described in a sentence or tweet.”

By simplifying the app, Crowley said each of the apps will be “much faster and easier to use”. By breaking foursquare essentially into two apps, Crowley is trying to place more emphasis on personalisation and take the user’s tastes into account, as well as opinions of trusted friends and experts.

Whilst this is happening, Swarm becomes the platform people will use to ‘check-in’ at various places and share with friends where they are and what they’re doing. The question really is if foursquare can migrate enough of its users from one app to another, whilst asking them to continue to use both but for different reasons.

For something so simple, it appears to be a complicated solution – but I can understand why foursquare is doing it. Searching for things near me on foursquare currently, delivers the same result that another completely unrelated user sees. The new foursquare app (due to be updated this summer) will be about discovery and offering a more tailored list of options based on my own preferences and those of my friends.

This means that one app (Swarm) will allow me to check in and show off to my friends that I’m in the office, at the station or at my local park (yawn!) whilst foursquare will allow me to find more tailored recommendations of where to go and what to see, local to me and my network of friends.

Our handsets are one of the most treasured and personal possessions we own. The amount of personal data they hold is incredible and increasingly app developers are realising that breaking apps down into smaller pieces actually enables them to better harness this data and offer a better user experience.

Facebook have lead the way for some time with the unbundling of their product – offering users access to apps such as Messenger, Instagram and Paper (and until recently, Poke). Foursquare launching Swarm is their first real foray into this space so it will be interesting to see how it works for them – especially given that both apps need a critical mass of users to make them useful.

Without us really knowing, apps are evolving and the way we use them is changing. From initially being icons that fought each other for ‘share of screen’ and turned our phone from a device to talk on to a camera, to a messaging tool – apps appear to be becoming simpler, but smarter in the way they collect and then use data.

Apps are slowing turning into service tools that will start to tap us on the shoulder and encourage us to open them when they have something interesting and more personal to tell us rather than apps that see us idly opening them in the hope that they have something to tell us.

The more we use our handsets the more data (via these apps) learns more about us, what we do and where we go. This will only develop over time and some apps may not need to be opened at all in the future – after all the ‘passive check in’ on Swarm has already been mooted, which if it does happen will revolutionise apps and the way we (don’t) use them.

It will be interesting to see what happens when the iPhone 6 launches later this year – as invariably any significant change to handsets and home screens will mean app developers need to adapt to stay one step ahead.


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