Worried about having too many messaging apps? Boy do I have bad news for you.

Today my twitter app offered me the option to integrate my Instagram. I said no. Shortly afterward I started reading about a service called “Slack”.

Screen Shot 2015-08-17 at 3.25.02 pmThe line about the email killer made me laugh.

If you hope one day your email, your twitter, facebook, sms, skype, postal mail and home phone will all be in one app, you’re dreaming.

Likewise, if you invent a messaging app you intend to be the one to rule them all, you’ll end up contributing only clutter to the landscape.

This is not a bad thing.

We have specific needs for different types of communication. Each will be best served by different kinds of technology.

I think this argument is best served with an analogy.

The area of our lives where technology is most mature is the kitchen. What we see is not a streamlining of technology but hyper-specialisation.

I just counted and there are thirteen separate heat sources in my kitchen.

  • Oven
  • Grill
  • Microwave
  • Toaster
  • Kettle
  • Espresso machine
  • Sandwich press
  • Hot tap
  • Rice cooker
  • Four gas burners

There has been no major technological innovation there for years. And human tastes when it comes to food are very well-established. We can’t pretend the current state of technological proliferation is due to rapid developments or uninformed consumer prefereneces.

In theory I could use a single hot plate to get (almost) all the tasks done. But the cost of proliferation is small compared to my preference for getting the job done properly.

The microwave promised to do it all too
The microwave promised to do it all too.

For the same reason I have a cutlery drawer, not a Swiss Army knife.

The idea human communication needs can be met with a single “killer” app is crazy. We talk, we write, we draw, we sing, we shout and whisper. Even in the medium of “mail” we send not just letters but also bills and postcards.

In the future we’re going to have phones full of messaging apps, each subtly different. We’ll appreciate them all and look back with amusement on this naive era – an era where entrepreneurs who aimed to be all things to all people invented apps that ended up with a very specific purpose.

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Thomas the Think Engine is the blog of a trained economist. It comes to you from Melbourne Australia.

7 thoughts on “Worried about having too many messaging apps? Boy do I have bad news for you.”

  1. Interesting. Yet Hotelling’s Law would suggest that each of these apps will eventually converge to have the same feature set, ya?

    Why would we see multiple apps doing different things? I suspect we’re more likely to see an array of ‘swiss army knife’ apps, all aiming to have social network, document sharing, private and group messaging etc features.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I do love hotelling’s law, so your argument gives me pause. I see twitter adding photos and instagram allowing more and more interactions to happen away from the mobile interface.
      I think what we’ll see is a few more clearly defined categories emerge (we already have social media(for work/friends/politics/photos)/short messages/voice/long messages). Inside each there will be convergence, but the distinctions between them will grow clearer over time and splintering may happen too, led by taste-makers – as the espresso machine and rice cooker took over from stove top tasks.


  2. I initially agreed with what you say on the messaging apps, and I thought that it’s sort-of a case of this XKCD cartoon on standards:


    Having said that, I think of the iPhone: before it came along, I’m not sure I would have believed one item would be my primary music player, camera, dictionary, electronic reading device, alarm, street directory, web browser and phone.

    Considering the examples you cite, those heat sources are applied to food. Food is the common denominator. Working with food is an age-old thing we do that isn’t likely to be changed very much in the future, and there’s been a co-evolutionary process going on for centuries to get us working together nicely.

    Electronic data is new and extremely malleable. Chances are we haven’t come to the end of adapting electronic data to our needs in the near future, and that might mean a new communications medium to blow them all away will come along.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The iPhone is an excellent counter-example. The computing power in it means it can run a heap of apps and be very adaptable from a processing perspective. But it is not adaptable from a hardware perspective. I look at the fact I have a laptop, a tablet, a phone and a TV in my house and I wonder if we might be moving towards a world where hardware proliferates and we carry around a range of devices that have similar software but different hardware features.


  3. You could be right, and you’ve picked a really good and clever analogy. I say “right”, “clever” and “good”, but also “could”, as I think we’ll have to wait and see. Information and heat sources are two very different things.

    So I’m not entirely sure that your actual argument is unassailable. Although I would lean towards agreeing with your conclusion.

    I would like to think that in another hundred years, after we’ve had a good long hard look at all these kitchen appliances, someone might be clever enough to come up with one thing that does almost everything. Well, maybe two or three things, or four. A big oven, a smaller appliance for applying heat to food in different ways, a microwave and a kettle. Because we’ll always like to make tea in the “traditional” way.

    Another thought: we’ll always have to have more than one thing because we often have to process different foods at the same time – in fact that could be seen as a big part (not all) of the reason why we already have numerous appliances. For example, we used to have a double oven, but now we have a single one and we often wish we had a double one again so that we could, for example, cook a roast and bake a cake at the same time.

    Messages don’t have to be kept physically separate in the same way – it’s not a spatial issue. So that’s one way that the analogy breaks down.

    Fortunately, it’s probably not particularly useful or important for us to know the answer right now! Interesting discussion though.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes the analogy is neat but whether it applies is rather questionable! I think the parallel processing point is a good one. I often make espresso, warm something in the microwave and make toast all at once. I also run Twitter and facebook and email and the TV all at once…
      I guess the question the analogy hints at is whether a single piece of software can adapt itself to the best format for each kind of information and communication, (like a toaster that adapts to different size bread) or whether adaptability constrains fitness for purpose.


      1. My best guess is probably that the number of formats in common use will expand and contract as time goes by.

        Incidentally, there seems to be a push by Facebook to make their messaging system more-or-less universal, although at the moment they are nowhere near their goal – hopeless or non-existent search, filtering, forwarding, organising functions, amongst many others.

        One of the many things that I find annoying about their approach is the fact that they want us to use it in a “chat” kind of way, with messages in small windows that pop up every time there’s a new one, whether it’s on phone or PC (“push notifications”).

        But I generally prefer to use it the way I use email – in longer messages, which I check only when I want to. Combining the two formats seems to be impossible to really imagine. It’s like trying to combine, say, TV and Skype.

        So there are two things that (I think) need to be kept separate. I’d rather have a Whatsapp-style chat function, and a fully functional email/Gmail-style discussion format. And I think there will always be the need for both.

        And then there’s Twitter (which I don’t use very much, but I can see that people find a use for it.

        If you add to those three (1. text/chat, 2. email, 3. Twitter) the general Facebook commenting style of messaging (which I liken to walking down the street on a Saturday afternoon in my youth, bumping into random friends, family, acquaintances and strangers and having various kinds of interactions with them), then you’ve got *four* different “appliances” which it’s hard to see being combined into one.

        And I’m sure there are other “modalities” of communication which work in different ways again (wikis, forums…) which are irreconcilable with the above four. Bottom line, there’ll always be someone who wants a popcorn machine, a yoghurt maker, a…

        Liked by 1 person

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