The Paradox Of App Unbundling: Facebook Upsets Users As Messenger Shoots To No. 1

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Last week Facebook performed a seemingly paradoxical action: it angered millions of people and profited immensely from it.

Facebook tends to specialize in this particular paradox. For years it has played fast and loose with privacy and made controversial changes to its design that have upsets its users. Yet Facebook keeps growing and growing, the one of the largest single mobile apps and websites on the Internet.

And Facebook has done it again.

If you are a frequent Facebook user, there is a good chance that you also use its Facebook Messenger chat app. Messenger is a simple popup chat app similar to Google Hangouts or the AIM app of yore. It used to be rolled up as part of the primary Facebook app before the social giant spun it out as a standalone app that was still part of the primary Facebook app. Facebook took the rollout of Messenger even further, striking it from the main Facebook app entirely and forcing users to download it as a completely separate app, symptomatic of the great app unbundling of 2014.

The transition was jarring. Last week, Facebook prompted users who attempted to use Messenger from the primary Facebook app to download it separately on the Apple App Store or Google Play. Users received a popup notification and could not use Messenger from the main Facebook app.

“And the reason why we’re doing that is we found that having it as a second-class thing inside the Facebook app makes it so there’s more friction to replying to messages, so we would rather have people be using a more focused experience for that,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg told TechCrunch’s Josh Constine in an on-stage interview last year.

Facebook likely predicted this, but the repositioning of Facebook as a second-class citizen to first-class app led to an explosion of anger from its users … and downloads.

First, the downloads. Facebook rode the unbundling of Messenger from the main Facebook app all the way to No. 1 in the United States App Store as of July 29th. It has since held its position as a top three app in the App Store and the first overall social app in the last week. The consequence of Facebook forcing users to download a separate Messenger app and its rise to the top of the rankings is clear, according to data from app analytics firm App Annie.

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And Here Comes The Anger

When Facebook makes an announcement that will affect millions of people, it often does not mince words or walk softly. Facebook’s modus operandi is to make the changes it wants and deal with the repercussions later. When it comes to changes to its newsfeed and profile pages, Facebook will often perform a staged rollout to countries and areas that are not heavily populated (New Zealand, for instance) to gauge how people react. If this beta group of real world users doesn’t revolt, then Facebook often pushes the differences to the rest of its billion or so users across the globe.

Due to the mechanics of the app economy, Facebook cannot really do this well with the App Store, Google Play and Windows Phone Marketplace. Staged beta rollouts are available through Google Play and the App Store, but eventually app makers have to push the whole kit and caboodle to the wider populace. So when a company like Facebook decides to make a change in how it bundles, distributes or presents its apps, the action is like ripping a piece of duct tape off a particularly hairy arm—quick and extraordinarily painful.

Facebook users reacted strongly to the new Messenger app. Applause Analytics shows that for the five days after Facebook forced the separation, the app received 1,075 negative reviews against 139 positive reviews in the Apple App Store. On Android, the reviews were more evenly split (and much more voluminous), with 6,706 negative reviews and 7,098 positive reviews.

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Facebook Messenger iOS score (Applause Analytics)

Applause Analytics clusters (which break down reviews by common themes) show that most people are upset with the separation and privacy issues. One of the most common clusters gives the new Messenger an average of 1.51 stars on the App Store. For Android, many reviewers find the standalone app to be of better quality than the last version of Facebook Messenger, but are still displeased by the app permissions and the fact that they have to download an entirely new app.

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The Great App Unbundling Of 2014

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In the beginning, there was a portal.

It was a necessary evil, this portal. The portal was a natural reaction by denizens and designers of the Web to help make sense of all the information and media exploding on the Internet. Between the mid-1990s and early 2000s, the Web started creating more and more content and information than people ever had before or knew what to do with. The Web needed to be organized.

The portal took many forms—iGoogle, Yahoo’s homepage, MySpace … Facebook. It was the great bundling of the Web. Your one stop shop for everything and anything that you were interested in, organized neatly on one page. You could get your emails, send instant messages, keep up with the news on your favorite people or topics. Really, everything. The portals on the Web created in the early to mid 2000s were the Walmart of the Internet.

The epoch of the portal is long, long over. It was crushed by the smartphone and the app economy, the fundamental and inevitable shift in behavior by people on the Web that happens every few years.

The Smartphone Is The New Portal

The smartphone replaced the Web portal. In its own way, the smartphone became the portal … the window in which you could check your email, weather, send an instant message, read news on your favorite topics. Everything. Of course, there was an app for that.

But the concept of the portal did not immediately whither. The platforms transferred from the Web to the smartphone and tablet as part of the first mobile migration. Yahoo had an app, Google had an app, Facebook had an app. To varying degrees, these apps included all the old features of the portal, like chat or messaging, news and search.

Then it all started to crumble. As developers started publishing more and more apps, creating new micro-verticals of businesses within a topic category, the portal apps became less relevant. Communications was one of the first to splinter with the likes of Google Talk (now Hangouts) decoupling from the rest of Google’s bundle. Third-party competitors like WhatsApp and Snapchat created new businesses within the communications realm with companies like Voxer mixing voice and messaging functionality.

The Web portal—one page controlled by one company that brings you everything you need—is gone. The smartphone is now the new portal. And while the individual smartphones may be controlled by large companies through an operating (Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android, for instance), smartphones present users and developers a much more elegant and egalitarian choice of what services they want to build and use. The mobile platforms provide the portals—a smartphone in every pocket—and the operating systems provide windows into those portals through apps.

Hence we see competition for attention, with app makers building individual apps for any feature or function you can think of instead of packaging them all into one portal.

In 2014, we are now in the middle of The Great Unbundling.

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