"There’s only two ways I know of to make money: bundling and unbundling."
There’s been a pretty clear story for the past couple of years that the
dynamics of smartphone interfaces drive unbundling of services.
The main reason is that single-purpose applications have an advantage on
smartphone interfaces. On a desktop website, you could always add a feature
as a new tab on your site navigation, and clicking that was easier than
going to another web site. But on mobile, all apps are just two taps away,
while there is very little room for links to more features in any given
app’s home screen - they quickly get shoved into the ‘hamburger’ menu, and
soon after fall into the ‘hamburger basement’, down below the bottom of the
screen. This gives startups scope to unbundle features from larger
companies' products, and also means those companies themselves unbundle
their apps into separate single-function apps.
This effect is even stronger for social applications, where a lot of the
unbundling conversation focuses, since the smartphone is itself a social
platform quite unlike a desktop web browser. All apps can access the
address book, giving them a ready-made social graph, and the photo library,
reducing the hassle of uploading to different sites, and push
notifications, removing the hassle of checking lots of different sites.
This is why we have dozens of social apps that have passed the 1m, 10m or
even 100m user milestone.
Finally, of course, driven by all of these dynamics, all smartphone apps by
their nature unbundle services from the web browser itself, 20 year after
All of this seems inevitable and inherent in the nature of the platform.
It’s the reason why Facebook has moved from a de facto monopoly of social
on the desktop to being merely the leader on mobile, buying the occasional
breakout unbundler while experimenting with its own suite (‘constellation’)
of different apps searching for new use cases
However, looking at the Chinese internet market is always a great way to
challenge your belief in what’s inevitable, and in this case both Baidu
Maps and WeChat, amongst others, are thriving on exactly the opposite
approach - bundling multiple services into one app. (WeChat and Baidu Maps
are a bit different, so I'll focus on Baidu)
Hence, in Baidu Maps you can not just find a restaurant but book a table or
order home-delivery. You can find where a film is showing and choose a
seat. You can order a cab, with cabs from all the services in your city
shown together on the map and the order going to be best offer. You can
book a hotel room or a cleaner. Most of of these services are provided
though embedded third-parties - Baidu is doing deals with other Chinese
internet companies to provide this. WeChat (which now has close to 400m
MAUs), is doing much the same, but of course starting from a chat
experience rather than a maps experience.
In both cases, the aggregations make a fair amount of sense on their own
terms - finding a cinema, taxi or restaurant are location-based activities
and they’re also social activities. But the functionality is being flipped
upside-down: in the USA a taxi app or a restaurant app will have an
embedded map, but in China the map has embedded restaurants and taxis - and
lots of other things. Equally, on Yelp you can message friends, but in
WeChat you’re already in the messaging app.
This changes the layer of aggregation. By default, the iOS and Android
interfaces aggregate at the app launcher level - you have a screen of
different icons for different services, though to some extent notifications
are becoming another OS-level aggregation. Anything that hasn't been
unbundled from the web is in the browser, where it is in turn aggregated by
Google. Apps like WeChat and Baidu Maps move the service aggregation layer
up the stack from the home screen, bundling it within a single app.
Conversely Siri and Google Now (and arguably Microsoft's Live tiles) are in
different ways about moving it down the stack into an OS-level service. But
the interesting thing is that changing the aggregation model also enables
new types of discovery.
In the app launcher layer, any direct service discovery (as opposed to
marketing, word of mouth etc) is limited to the app stores. When they
launched this worked adequately, but with over 1m apps in each of the iOS
and Android app stores this model is clearly now broken. Just as Yahoo’s
hierarchical directory didn’t really scale after 1996 or so, so too app
stores have not scaled as a discovery platform. Further, though there are
lots of ways that the execution of the app stores could be improved, this
still ultimately boils down to saying ‘Yahoo’s home page should be better’
back in 1996. Indeed it should have been, but the answer was still
PageRank. And we have no analogue of PageRank for mobile apps.
Google Now and Siri, moving down the stack, address discovery by removing
the whole question of ‘which app/site/service addresses this need?’ Now
tries to infer from your general activity what you might want to be told
about, while Siri tries to use natural language to answer your question.
Both are focused on an answer rather than a specific service - ‘sports
scores’ rather than ‘ESPN’ (even if ESPN proves the actual answers). But
the problem with both is that underlying answers are provisioned in an
essentially manual process. Google Now, in particular, looks like Google’s
most automatic and magical product, but in fact it's all editorial. Someone
has to decide that Now will support cricket, and then someone has to sit
down and code the cricket module. And If no-one has done rugby yet, you
won’t get rugby - Now can't work out what rugby is from watching your web
browsing. Siri has similar constraints: HAL 9000 didn’t have a list of
things you could ask him. This does not scale to the whole internet.
The general issue here is that any aggregator of services that offers a set
of essentially hand-crafted approaches will inevitably run out of room in
the metaphorical hamburger menu, just as the app store home pages can only
showcase a few dozen apps at once and Yahoo's home page could only showcase
a few dozen services. Or, indeed, Apple's Sherlock ran out of tabs. This
doesn't scale to the internet. PageRank did and indeed the web did.
The Baidu Maps model addresses this problem by narrowing scope to a
specific domain, location, such that the discovery (hopefully) flows out of
a natural pre-existing context. You don’t need to know about restaurant
booking services or download the app, but you also don't need to know if
Baidu Maps has an AI that can do restaurant bookings (as you would need to
know that Siri connects to OpenTable): bookings are an organic extension of
the context you're already in. You'll already be searching for restaurants
on the map, but now ‘make a booking’ will appear.
That is, searches within maps are naturally constrained - there are only so
many use cases (a dozen? two dozen?) where a service integration might make
sense. So Baidu can make a maps app that’s an order of magnitude better
because it contains within itself every possible maps-based use case, and
nothing more. And those use cases can be hidden until you search - you
don't need to find space for a 'cleaners' button - you can just show that
module when people do that search, as they will.
WeChat comes at this discovery issue from the other direction: the social
foundation of the app means that services can come to you thRough friends
or through subscriptions to channels, but the point is the same - you don't
need to find space on the screen for every single service for people to
find them. For Facebook, the model would be to drive traffic out into
stand-alone apps (or a web view), with the partnership being only an
advertising one - for WeChat the dynamic is perhaps closer to the original
Facebook platform on the desktop.
One way to look at this, I think, is that you trade app discovery
challenges for feature discovery challenges. That is, in an app with only
one or two features it's easy to see what you can do, but hard to discover
that app in the first place. Conversely in an app with hundreds of millions
of users but also lots of integrated features, feature discovery becomes
the challenge, and the opportunity.
Changing discovery is one thing, but the other interesting thing is how
much happens inside the app. There are two structural things that the
desktop web has that the mobile app ecosystem lacks. On the web:
* You can link to any resource
* That resource will be there - you don't need to install anything.
These aggregator apps are tackling both problems: they have discovery
models to allow you to get to the resource (e.g. social or local context),
and the resources are loaded within the app - no need for a new app
install. This isn't happening on the web, as such, but it has some of the
same dynamics - within, obviously, those limited domains.
It's interesting to contrast this with the deep linking initiatives from
Facebook and Google. Facebook offers a way to drive traffic to your app
from social and Google from search, and Google is experimenting with, for
example, a link to Uber from within Google Maps. The problem is that if the
app isn't there then you fail back to HTML, and if HTML was good enough
then you wouldn't have bothered deep linking in the first place. But on the
other hand, you can't integrate everything - we already have a way to do
that. Hence, the Facebook and Google moves (and also Line's) disaggregate
apps, but use identity, deep links and search as an aggregation layer that
is closer to the web and might be more scalable.
That is, you can bundle things into an app that has distribution, but
there's a limit to how many both for practical and discovery reasons. If
you use context (maps, social) you can address the discovery problem but
this works best in constrained contexts. If you don't bundle, your features
are easy to discover (because your app only has one feature) but you give
up those opportunities for discovery and fall back on raw search, social
sharing or the app stores.
And for all that we talk about the problems with apps and the lack of
PageRank, one cannot really describe the desktop web as a prelapsarian
paradise of simple and easy discovery. The web is a neutral, transparent
and unmediated platform, and smartphones are not, but neither are Google or
Hence, as Lenin put it, the question is 'Who, whom?' Who has the traffic,
and to whom do they give it? Mobile shuffled the deck, but it doesn't alter
The other interesting comparison here is with Yahoo and AOL. The portal
model failed pretty comprehensively in the 2000s, with category killer
sites springing up and AOL and Yahoo and the other would-be portals falling
far behind. So when smartphone apps came along we already had a dominant
unbounded model that transferred pretty directly: we unbundled services
from the browser, but the services themselves were already unbundled from
In China, though, we see a model in which the portals didn't disappear. For
a lot of different reasons, the Chinese internet is based on much more
horizontal than vertical competition: where we have vertical category
killers (Google, Amazon, eBay) China has giants that are each leading in
one category but strong in others, and competing aggressively with each
other across every category. On mobile, Baidu Maps and WeChat are showing a
systematic concept of the app as, well, a portal. Is this what Yahoo might
look like on mobile now if it hadn't spent a decade asleep?