Would you want to be able to book a taxi from your email program? How about being able to send emails from your music organiser? Or maybe you’d like to be able to order a pizza while using your dating app?
Unlikely scenarios, all three; and yet many of the apps that we use would like to be able to encompass functionalities as diverse as that. It was part of the integrated approach that Microsoft’s Windows Phone introduced in 2010 with its “People Hub” idea. That didn’t have much success, arguably because it was too early and the implementation wasn’t great. But the idea that when you communicate, you want to be able do all sorts of communication – whether via Facebook or Twitter or text or email – is one that is catching on in a big way.
As a result, some apps are beginning to suffer from a sort of late-teenage bloat. Apple’s iTunes on the desktop is the poster child for this. Having started as software to rip CDs and play MP3s, it has added functionality so that now it enables you to (deep breath) buy or stream a huge catalogue of songs, albums, podcasts, TV shows and films, and also to buy and download mobile apps – though the need to do the latter barely arises, since you can just add them to your device.
But iTunes wasn’t the first. Email programs have long been able to display photos, videos and documents; Microsoft did it first and most thoroughly in Outlook. In the same way Slack, the app that many look on as email’s better replacement (because it obviates the blizzard of separate emails in favour of chat spaces and links), has expanded to include the ability to show all sorts of content natively. Others are getting into the multifunction app. Facebook and Twitter have done it for a while: they’re not just text platforms but also photos and videos. Facebook is taking it further by having Facebook Messenger, and including in that Facebook M, its “assistant” to help you with various tasks.
Every app, after all, wants to be the one where you spend all your time. But on mobile, the risks associated with overloading the user interface (user confusion and complexity of updates) mean that established products tend to splinter instead.
Facebook has added news, video, audio and messaging; more recently it took the brave decision on mobile to split Messenger (for person-to-person contact) off as a separate app. Similarly on iOS, Apple has parcelled out the functions of the desktop iTunes to five apps – Music, Podcasts, Films, iTunes Store and App Store.
Yet not all take that approach. WeChat, a Chinese messaging app, dwarfs most western products both in scale – it has around 700 million active accounts – and ambition: despite being first released only in January 2011 as a text/voice/photo-sharing app, it has expanded to provide functionality so that you can order cabs, buy film tickets, play games, check in for flights, pay bills … the list goes on and on. Connie Chan of venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz wrote an astonished blogpost about its capability, noting that “while Facebook and WhatsApp measure growth by the number of daily users on their networks, WeChat cares more about how relevant and central [it] is in addressing the daily, even hourly, needs of its users”.
So why don’t we have a WeChat in the west? Facebook comes closest, but as noted above, it’s splitting apart on mobile. Possibly it’s because we tore apps apart on the desktop; Outlook’s ability to show documents was exploited by scripting viruses such as ILOVEYOU, so historically there’s caution around having too much capability inside an app. China, WeChat’s home ground, never went through the same desktop evolution – it jumped direct to mobile, where apps are more rigorously “sandboxed” in their interaction with other phone functions. We tend to praise apps that “do one thing well” – and then grumble because they can’t do some specific thing that we alone want to do.
This desire to be everything to everyone marks WeChat out – but it’s obvious that Facebook and WhatsApp want to do the same; in India, WhatsApp already serves some commercial functions as a link between businesses. Global ambition may mean globally large app functionality, rather than siloed mobile apps with single functions like Uber. In a few years, individual apps may have been swallowed into bigger ones. Need a cab? In the future it might be as easy as opening your camera app; Uber is already part of Messenger in some US cities.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010