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A quick introduction to app constellations: The Working Group

A quick introduction to app constellations

VC Fred Wilson recently published a killer blog post outlining a seismic shift in the way the biggest players in tech are doing mobile apps. Folks like Facebook, Google and Dropbox are moving away from large multi-purpose applications and starting to create something Wilson calls App Constellations.

An App Constellation is a collection of mobile apps that share a single login and have app-to-app linking built in. Apps within a constellation are often simple, focussing on a few key features in order to solve a specific problem for the user.

App Constellations are, Wilson explains, a seriously important development in the world of non-game native mobile applications:

“Putting a ton of functionality into a single app is not the right way to do it on mobile. Having a constellation of mobile apps that all work tightly with each other seems to be the better way. And the leading mobile app companies are all headed in that direction now. Pay attention to this trend.” – Fred Wilson

Some examples of App Constellations include…

– Google Search, Drive, Maps, Google+
– Facebook, Messenger, Instagram, WhatsApp, Paper
– Dropbox, Mailbox, Loom

Facebook wants to dominate your mobile homescreen by creating a system of interconnected apps

App Constellations: The Hotel California of the App Ecosystem

“We are all just prisoners here of our own device.”

Hotel California, a song by 70s rock band The Eagles, is about a strange hotel in the middle of the desert. Should you pick this spot as your hotel of choice, frontman Don Henley warns us, you can check in any time you like. BUT YOU CAN NEVER LEAVE.

App Constellations are the digital, non-spooky version of Hotel California.

The app market is maturing fast, and the big players are aggressively building-slash-buying apps so they can keep dominating where users spend their time. Companies like Facebook, Google and Dropbox are quickly learning ways to put their products at the heart of the user’s app experiences. Like the Hotel California, once you’ve checked in to one of these companies apps, it’s getting harder and harder to leave. At least, for as long as your browsing session lasts. 

Two strategies contributing the creation of these app constellations are Deep Linking and Unbundling. 

Deep Linking Is The Glue Holding It All Together  

Understanding deep linking is super important for anyone hoping to cultivate a successful digital ecosystem across multiple channels. Deep linking lets your users move seamlessly from one app to the next, and to specific pages within each app. It also lets you drive users from your website, email newsletter and social feeds to your native apps, and vice-versa. It’s kind of like the superglue that holds all of your digital channels together.

Innovative developers (mobile retailers, for example) are doing this in their apps already. Using deep links in their marketing channels, they’re sending users directly to specific pages within their app to make a purchase.

Deep-linked ads in Facebook drive users directly to book a hotel for the night (via digital brand expressions)

“In the coming years, deep linking will change the way you use your mobile devices,” writes Re/Code’s Liron Shapira

“Today, it often takes you a few steps to get to the part of an app that you’re interested in. You have to enter through the “front door” by tapping an icon on your device’s home screen, and then navigate within the app. With deep linking, you can go straight to the part of an app you care about.”

One thing worth noting though, TWG dev @bgilham points out, is that deep linking may become less important in iOS 8. With iOS8 your apps will be able to interact with one another in a more open fashion. Thanks to new app extensions that can live inside an existing apps sandbox, your apps will be able to “talk” to each other without the need to include links.

Read: 2014 is the year of the deep link
Read: Facebook launches AppLinks to make deep linking between apps easier
Read: Why you should be excited for extensions in iOS 8



Unbundling: The Conscious Uncoupling

Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin: Possible advocates of the app unbundling trend (via iDiva)

So now that we have deep linking to stick our apps together, splitting out big apps to make a collection of smaller apps is starting to make sense (and remember, the more apps you have, the more real estate you can claim on a user’s homescreen.) Unlike Gwyneth and Chris’ barfworthy “conscious uncoupling”, the unbundling of your apps doesn’t lead to true separation – they can stay usefully connected.

 Unbundling also allows you to focus on a few key features, simplifying and hopefully improving the experience for the user. Lydia Leavitt wrote a great explainer piece for TNW about why large tech companies are going the unbundling route:

“Recently, Google split up its Drive apps into three separate standalone apps: Sheets, Slides, and Docs. Facebook separated its chat offering, Messenger, into its own standalone app, and Foursquare broke its app in two to launch Swarm, an app focused on social mapping. A strategy that all of these large tech companies share: the conscious uncoupling of products colloquially called unbundling.”


How to Unbundle Your Great Big App

1. Take a feature-rich app that lets a user do lots of different things

2. Use the data to figure out which pieces of the app are the most useful and popular

3. Create new apps which focus on doing a small numbers of things really, really well

4. Use deep linking to move users between each app

5. Congratulations! You’re unbundled.

I asked a couple of the TWG design crew to share their perspectives on the trend and why it makes sense for the people who are building these products…

“From a design and engineering perspective, unbundling streamlines the pipeline and allows for quicker updates and even separate teams. The problem of slow software cycles is most apparent in cases like Apple’s iOS, where many applications are shipped as part of the operating system.

What was interesting in Apple’s WWDC keynote was the migration of application-level features to the os level. The built-in Photos app, for example, began it’s life as a photo gallery. It will soon have many features (cropping, rotating, colour correction) that you would have needed one or more apps to do in the past. I suspect the unbundling we’re seeing from big players like Google and Facebook is actually a hint at their OS and smartphone aspirations.”


“Minimum viable product or most valuable player? Throw a bunch of bench players on the court, and everybody’s still there to watch Lebron. Unbundling validates the Lean startup process of building and testing the minimum viable product, focusing your business to the best feature. Maybe you’ve got to play the whole team to find the all star, but it’s likely people are there to watch the MVP’s highlight reel.”


Read: Why Large Tech Companies are Hopping on the App Unbundling Trend
Read: What Follows The Great Unbundling? Unholy Alliances

So what’s the big deal? Why should all of this matter to you?

Companies outside of the tech space should be paying attention to this shift FOR SURE. Apps are continuing to dominate when it comes to how we’re spending our time on the mobile web. But it’s also true that the majority of our time is spent on a few key apps, increasingly owned by a few key companies.

Tragically, too many apps are still ending up in the app graveyard.

“Be prepared.”

When it comes to interacting with customers, building loyalty, or supporting transactions, custom native apps are still outperforming alternatives like cross-platform or responsive solutions. Across the board brands are increasing their investment in tech, and awareness of the importance of mobile has never been higher.

But the data shows that poorly-performing apps still characterize the majority of digital brand experiences. Obscurity remains a harsh reality for many apps. Understanding the impact you could have by building out your own app constellations, and understanding the interplay between native apps, other online properties and your offline experiences will be the keys to digital success in 2014 and beyond.

Get in touch:
Tweet @hollyknowlman 


About The Working Group

Good people. Great work. We design and engineer web and mobile products for growing startups and national brands, and partner with promising startups through our startup acceleration program. Est. 2002


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