Few tech industry vets can claim to have held roles as a scientist, a chief executive officer and a successful venture capitalist, but John Lilly of Greylock Partners has managed to do all three. That’s why we asked Lilly to weigh in on the multi-app strategy that some well-known tech companies — including one of Greylock’s portfolio companies — have adopted. An edited version of the conversation is below.
Is a multi-app strategy a good thing?
It depends. Mobile is supposed to be fast, right? You just want to be able to do the thing you want to do and get right to the content you want. If fast is the goal, you get rid of the stuff that slows you down. My sense is that with the multi-app strategy, people are saying, “We want to provide not the full features but a function, and we want to reduce that cognitive load,” so simplicity and speed are the name of the game.
I think Carousel [a spinoff app of Dropbox, in which Greylock is invested] has simplified the Dropbox app. I have Messenger on my phone, but not Facebook on my phone. It’s part of a binge/purge cycle for me.
It works if you are thoughtful and careful in how you design. I think right now we’re all kind of leaning on the home screen icons, 25 in a grid, and I don’t know how well that scales.
Some consumers don’t like having to download more apps, though, because it means more permissions [on their smartphones], and trying to understand more complicated terms of service around what’s being shared.
[Jokes] I’m convinced the only people who read terms of service agreements are lawyers and journalists.
The first time you load a second app in a constellation and it already has everything about you, it’s creepy and surprising. But the information that’s trading behind the scenes once you’ve logged in — it’s all kind of working in the same way it was before.
What are some examples of companies that are doing the multi-app strategy well?
I think the new Foursquare is quite nice. Even Facebook has done it well — not just with Messenger, but look at something like Instagram.
Is the multi-app strategy analogous in any way to what we’ve seen with the desktop?
It’s a good question. OS X has always been an interface built on top of Unix — and Unix has historically been about small apps trading information between each other through something called pipes. I’ve always been struck by how OS X has kept much of that small-app sensibility as a result. For one example: On the PC, it’s Outlook, and then you have your mail, your calendar, your contacts, all that stuff together. On Mac, you have separate apps for mail, calendar, contacts, and they’re exchanging information between the apps — a lot like we’re seeing with mobile apps now.
Are there any mobile apps out there that you think shouldn’t have a multi-app strategy?
Hmmm … I’d have to think on that one.
Or, conversely, are there apps you think should be doing this, but aren’t? For example, one of my co-workers thinks Airbnb [another of Greylock’s portfolio companies] could be a good fit because, as both a renter and a lister on the site, she can find the app confusing.
I think when you have really distinct sets of users, and renters and listers are good examples, it’s a good idea. Cases where it wouldn’t be good to split might be when you don’t have such a distinction in an app and then you find yourself having to constantly switch in and out [of different apps].
What do you think the potential downsides are of all these mobile app splits?
One of the downsides of constellations is — if you’re not careful — you just end up with too many apps, and you have a limited amount of space on the home screen. So you have to make sure the apps you are putting up are excellent and important.
I mean, Yahoo Weather is a beautiful app, but if you go over to the left-hand panel, you see ads for Yahoo Fantasy Sports and Yahoo Mail — a long list of ads, essentially. So the risk is, you start having so many apps that you need to promote them to users, and you already have a subset of ads to begin with. So you end up being forced to take their attention in some other direction.