Single-Feature vs. All-in-One: The Tide Is Changing

  |  May 11, 2012   |  Comments

Is a shift coming from "all-in-one" packages to "best of breed" single-functionality solutions?

Years ago, a former boss came to me with an idea for a new company. The idea was very small in scope, and it felt more like a "feature" of a larger system than a company unto itself. I told him that, and that I wasn't interested because the company could be eclipsed the moment that same feature was added to the competitor's larger application.

This is how I have felt in general about features vs. companies or applications. Look at Microsoft Outlook. It has my calendar, contacts, and email all under one roof. Apple, on the other hand, sees it fit to break these ideas into separate applications: Address Book, iCal, and Mail. It never made sense to me why I would want three separate applications open when I could have one application that did everything.

Then single-purpose mobile apps started being developed. On the iPhone or similar devices, there are lots of individual apps that each do one thing well, vs. apps that are multi-purpose. In the enterprise world, we've always struggled with "best of breed" combinations of vendors, vs. the "giant" vendors whose systems do everything but maybe aren't the best in any specific area individually.

Ironically, I've always worked with clients to put together "best of breed" combinations of vendors, and rarely recommend they go with the large single-platform companies whose systems are often tough to customize and impossible to remove after the fact. But on the desktop (maybe because I was a Windows zealot for so long) I always preferred something like Outlook to using individual apps for each functionality.

Fast forward to online. When Twitter came out, it looked like all it did was one piece of the functionality Facebook already did: status updates. That's not a company, it's a feature. And, it's not only an easily replicated feature, it's one that the competition already had. Instagram arguably has some features that Facebook doesn't have, but it is in essence also just a little slice of what Facebook is already doing (letting users share photos among their friends).

Yet obviously these "best of breed" single-functionality solutions are interesting to the general public. Otherwise Twitter wouldn't be valued so highly, and Facebook wouldn't want to buy Instagram for a billion dollars. What has changed?

Certainly the advent of mobile apps has conditioned users to go to different applications for different purposes, even if they are related (such as mail and contacts). Apple held to this idea long before mobile apps however, while most other companies saw the value in putting related items under one roof. Is this a situation where someone is "right" and someone else is "wrong"? I don't think so, but I do see them as two very opposing ideologies when it comes to program design and user experience.

The reality is that sometimes a system like Facebook is simply too large and cluttered if all you want to do is check out statuses. And maybe it's not the best if all you want to do is share pictures with friends (and be a little artistic in the process). This is exciting for a number of reasons. First, it means that the robust functionalities of Facebook, Amazon, and other large sites are ripe for the picking. Find one piece of functionality (that they haven't patented) and do it better (and with your own flair). If it catches on you'll have a hit company and maybe those bigger guys will buy you. Secondly, it means the war isn't over. If people use Twitter for status updates and Instagram for photo sharing, what's next? It is quite within the realm of possibility that cornerstones like Facebook won't be the hangout places they are now, because these smaller "single feature" sites/companies will have eroded their market share.

What do you think about these two very different approaches to building software and functionality? And, do you also sense a shift from "all-in-one" packages to "best of breed" single-functionality solutions? Leave me a note below!

Until next time…

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Jack Aaronson

Jack Aaronson, CEO of The Aaronson Group and corporate lecturer, is a sought-after expert on enhanced user experiences, customer conversion, retention, and loyalty. If only a small percentage of people who arrive at your home page transact with your company (and even fewer return to transact again), Jack and his company can help. He also publishes a newsletter about multichannel marketing, personalization, user experience, and other related issues. He has keynoted most major marketing conferences around the world and regularly speaks at and other major industry shows. You can learn more about Jack through his LinkedIn profile.

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