My friend Jon Steinberg had an interesting post this morning on Yelp’s decision to include “check-in” functionality in the new version of their iPhone app (his post here). In the comments section Jon, Fred Wilson and I got into a discussion about whether or not single-purposes products or services (like Fred’s investment Foursquare or Gowalla) tend to win over more general-purpose products (in this case Yelp, which is not a single-use application for checking into places but is rather an extension of their broader offering, including reviews, proximate choices, compliments to other users, etc…).
we’ve also noticed that point solutions often beat more full featured ones.
And Jon responded:
Yes, point solutions (focus) do seem to often rule the day. Especially, when I am free to knit them together on a platform (my device).
Upon reading this – I paused to wonder if I agreed with them. There is an intuitive rightness to this. A chef’s knife is a much better tool than the knife on a leatherman or Swiss Army device. An old-school manual espresso machine is much better than the $4,000 self-cleaning Rube Goldberg job that supposedly makes any coffee drink you want without any effort, cleans itself and then transforms into a robot that saves the earth. So it resonated with me that yes – single point solutions are often superior at the (axiomatically) narrower set of functionality they perform than general-purpose devices.
But then I realized that even as an early-adopting technology purist, I use general-purpose devices and solutions all the time. The best example I can think of is the iPhone. The iPhone is a general-purpose media and computing device that occasionally serves as a phone. As I thought about it, I use my iPhone for eight basic operations:
- Email and text messaging;
- Listening to music;
- Talking on the phone;
- Browsing the web;
- Interacting with data via apps;
- Reading books via the Kindle app;
- Watching videos; and
- Taking pictures.
Then I realized that for only two of these things (browsing the web and interacting with apps) is the iPhone actually the best device available to me. If I really wanted the best option for each of these functions (all of which are quite important to me) I’d actually carry, in addition to the iPhone:
- A blackberry for email and messaging (for those who carry blackberries they are essentially point solutions around activities that require typing);
- A 160 Gb iPod classic if I cared most about capacity (even the 32Gb iPhone doesn’t hold all of my media – not that close actually, and that’s just counting music) or an iPod Nano if I cared most about portability;
- A Motorola RAZR (on Verizon) for talking on the phone;
- My Kindle;
- An Archos 5 or some other tablet for watching movies; and
- My DSLR for taking pictures (but even an inexpensive point-and-shoot camera takes dramatically better pictures than my iPhone).
And yet despite my view that this collection of devices accomplishes a bunch of stuff I care about better than the iPhone, with the exception of the Kindle (which I carry when I take my bag with me) I don’t own most of these devices (and only carry the DSLR on trips when I know I want to take pictures). Why not?
Because sometimes good enough is good enough. Is the iPhone the absolute best device for listening to music, taking pictures or sending text messages? Definitely not – but it’s good enough for what I need. For some of these things (particularly talking on the phone) good enough may actually not be good enough, and I may add a device, but generally speaking I’m very happy to throw just the one device in my pocket and know I can do everything I want to do throughout the day.
I think this applies to web companies as well. To again pull a very mainstream example – Facebook is a general purpose social website. It includes messaging (but email is much better than my Facebook inbox), status updates (but my gchat message is more persistent to my friends), photo sharing (flickr has a better interface and tools) and a bunch of other secondary features all of which are done better somewhere else. And yet Facebook has well over 300 million users, is still growing, and has become one of the most important companies on the internet. Why?
I think the answer is that for mainstream users, general-purpose solutions are almost always preferable unless they are really bad (I’m looking at you,Yahoo…). Mainstream users don’t want to carry four or five devices because they are better if there’s an 80-20 rule general device that does enough for them. They don’t want to go to a bunch of different websites if there’s one that will do the majority of what they need. Ultimately, most consumers aren’t actually that picky about anything except this: convenience. If something is more convenient for consumers, they will do it.
So while this isn’t really about Jon’s “Yelpsquare” post, I guess my point of view is – if consumers have a choice between a really good app that’s just for a check-ins, a really good app that’s just for reviews and a really good app that’s just for messages, or a general purpose app that does all three pretty well, they’re likely to choose the latter. Because it’s more convenient.
Does that mean Yelp becomes the way people check into venues by default? Not necessarily. Not at all really. Because ultimately Yelp itself is a pretty specific application – it lets you look up restaurants (and other stuff but most people I know use it for restaurants) and see what other people thought about it. Now it also lets you see which other people were there. I’d argue that this is a pretty adjacent feature for them and that they are still a relatively focused application. I’m agnostic on whether the check-in UI is as good as Foursquare’s (or Gowalla’s) or not. But I guess where I come down is – if that’s the only question there is, I’d lean toward the more general-purpose product being the preference of the majority of consumers.