Platform Innovation and the Sub-App Phenomenon

I’m a little late in writing this, as the idea came to mind immediately after Snapchat announced their recent developments, but the writing didn’t. What follows are some thoughts on mobile applications, and the extent to which they can come to dominate the mobile user experience over and above a device’s resident operating system.

Imagine being THIS cool?

Here’s one of the many articles discussing Snapchat’s recent innovations (click). Snapchat is the Inspector Gadget, Mission Impossible-esque inspired temporary video, photo, and text messaging service that has really caught on over the past few months with mobile users. To describe it simply: when you send a message via Snapchat, it only “lives” for 10 or so seconds. After that it disappears, never to be heard from or seen again.

The gist of this recent bit of news surrounding Snapchat is that it has expanded its services to include a chat service, like Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, BBM, and every other messaging service that’s been born in the age of mobile. In addition to this, Snapchat has also included a video chat option, like Skype or Facetime.

The importance of this move by Snapchat isn’t that it now has all of these features. While all of that is really cool, and really great if you’re someone who needs more ways of communicating with friends, it’s Snapchat’s recognition that they need to expand their offering that, I think, is most intriguing. We can ask the question, for instance, “Why innovate when you’ve found a hugely successful niche in the world and culture of mobile messaging?” The answer to that question, of course, is because the people at Snapchat realized they can make their product better. And who doesn’t want that?

Why this move interests me, though, is because it represents a growth in the way mobile application companies are thinking about the user experience, and their app’s place within the milieu of offerings. Software applications and user interfaces are often referred to as digital environments that users come to occupy for a period of time. Think about Snapchat as an environment within the greater ecology of apps that are available on a person’s phone or mobile device. These apps all compete together for the user’s time, as well as their phone. When they’re enacted, they take over the phone and offer the user a different way of using their mobile device and the Internet – a re-imagining of the Internet that’s often different from the current paradigm in which mostly everything is based: the web browser.

As soon as the user clicks to use Snapchat, the application takes over the interface of that phone. Not only does it become the environment, but it becomes the phone’s ecology, as there are sub-applications within the master-app itself. What Snapchat has really done is expand its offering of sub-applications – a method done to help keep users within the embracing arms of the app for as long as possible.

This isn’t revolutionary by any means. Facebook has been doing this since its mobile genesis, and has been purchasing hardware and software companies to help keep their innovation pool fresh and their user experience evolving – to keep users within its ecosystem for as long as it can. Microsoft and Amazon have both developed their cloud capabilities to produce ecosystems of services inside of which they can elongate their user’s stay, too.

But software companies that are interested in creating alternative operating systems for mobile should take note of the sub-application phenomenon. Indeed, it’s not entirely naïve to think that we’ll be seeing entire operating systems built on top of preexisting ones, like iOS or any one of Android’s future candy-named variety. Think of it as a backdoor entry into the world of operating systems. In fact, it’s already happening with Ubuntu, the Linux operating system. Here’s a video explaining how Ubuntu re-thinks your phone’s potential, and turns your mobile phone into a computer that you can work from. Very cool.

The point of all of this is that everything is a platform that can be built upon. Imagine, for instance, an app created as a sub-application for Snapchat by an entirely different company. I wouldn’t advise doing such a thing, but it’s a way to think about how companies might create the future by building upon already existing platforms. Kind of like how human knowledge always “builds” upon previous knowledge sets.

It’s extremely unlikely that, as of now, Facebook or Apple will let someone use its mobile experience or OS to create a better working competitor, but for Android it’s certainly possible. And with the majority of the world using Android for mobile, it’s something that could become increasingly more interesting as time goes on. We can think of the mobile operating system as this age’s web browser. Netscape introduced the browser to the mass Internet as a functional interface, but, as we now know, Google came to dominate the web browsing experience through organizing the browser-based Internet in the best way.

How can you organize the mobile operating system experience so that it simply works better for people? How can your application offer a better experience than users’ current OS experience? Ubuntu is a great example here, maximizing the mobile phone’s potential. And it all begins with a very simple recognition and question that needs to be asked immediately after someone downloads and clicks open your application:

“All right, you’ve got your user. Now what are you going to do with them to make their stay worth while?”


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