Five Years Too Late

January 16, 2010

Point solutions or general-purpose ones?

Filed under: Uncategorized — fiveyearstoolate @ 7:56 pm

Eric Wiesen

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…).

Fred wrote:

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:

  1. Email and text messaging;
  2. Listening to music;
  3. Talking on the phone;
  4. Browsing the web;
  5. Interacting with data via apps;
  6. Reading books via the Kindle app;
  7. Watching videos; and
  8. 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:

  1. A blackberry for email and messaging (for those who carry blackberries they are essentially point solutions around activities that require typing);
  2. 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;
  3. A Motorola RAZR (on Verizon) for talking on the phone;
  4. My Kindle;
  5. An Archos 5 or some other tablet for watching movies; and
  6. 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.

17 Comments »

  1. “A chef’s knife is a much better tool than the knife on a leatherman or Swiss Army device” — I was just thinking yesterday that this is the only knife in my house I ever use. Use it to cut meat, veggies, cut up apples for a snack, sometimes peel carrots with it.

    Totally agree about the iPhone too. Well argued essay.

    Comment by kortina — January 16, 2010 @ 8:10 pm

  2. For hardware (your examples) maybe because there is a physical space barrier. For apps it’s just icons. So the friction diference between menu items an app icons is very small.

    Comment by Jon steinberg — January 16, 2010 @ 10:57 pm

    • Jon – I agree that apps are relatively low-friction, but I don’t think the primary source of consumer inconvenience from this category of point solution comes from the workflow friction of going to another app. I think it comes from (for lack of a better term) – “data friction”. To go back to the Facebook example, if my friends are all on Facebook I’m going to host my photos there, organize events there, send messages there, etc… even though their functionality is fairly weak in all of these areas relative to point solutions.

      With regard to the Yelpsquare question – I don’t know how this goes and I want to be clear about that. But if all the venue data is inside of Yelp, I’m not sure why I want to be separately checking in and monitoring who goes where in an entirely separate app. For me this is true because independent of whether places are good or not … I don’t really care who is going there. What is interesting to me about Foursquare is that it is the next stage of local ratings. Citysearch started with a curated city guide. Yelp took it crowdsourced. Foursquare (and SocialGreat of course) zoom in on people I actually care about.

      What I think happened is that Yelp realized this and realized they need people to import their real graphs into Yelp and start filtering by them (I’ve been telling my friend who works there that they need social filtering for over a year now). Adding check-ins via an app update is an interesting way to encourage users to import their social graph into Yelp (which to date I know I hadn’t done in any meaningful way) and thus avoid being a previous-generation approach to local ratings.

      Comment by Eric Wiesen — January 17, 2010 @ 8:24 am

      • But as all of these apps use common identity standards (facebook connect) there is very little data friction. (BTW – can you add Disqus comments to this blog – so much better)

        Comment by Jon Steinberg — January 17, 2010 @ 9:54 am

      • Agree entirely about Disqus. We’re moving this blog to tumblr in the next couple of months, at which point we’ll integrate it for sure. It’s much better.

        On the common ID question – it’s an interesting and valid point. I guess I’d point out two things. First off, right now neither Foursquare nor Yelp rely on Connect for ID (although you can import contacts in both cases). But both are building separate social graphs on their own. It’s an interesting thing to experience actually, because I find that of all the services with which I interact, I hold the highest standards for Foursquare. I only want people I know pretty well to see where I’m going all the time. For me the continuum (from most permissive to least) is probably Twitter –> LinkedIn –> Facebook –> Foursquare (Blippy will be further to the right than Foursquare if I actually wind up using it regularly).

        My second point would be that my analogy to Facebook was just an analogy, insofar as the important data in Facebook is the social graph. For Yelp, though, that’s not the critically differentiating data – the reviews are the important data there. So while Yelp could use Connect for identity (although they aren’t) the real core is the reviews and, more abstractly, the capability of delivering a reference judgment on whatever local business I’m trying to evaluate.

        I think there are a lot of issues with using Connect in the iPhone environment, but absent those issues I’d agree with your implication that Yelp would be better off using it for Identity and adding value by overlaying my existing social graph over their reviews. And I’m aware that this appears to contradict my earlier disagreement with your notion that they should have used Foursquare’s API. I think the difference is – the battle for identity has been largely fought and won by Facebook, whereas the battle for location functionality is in the bottom of the first inning. I don’t think Yelp should be in the business of competing with Facebook for identity, but I also don’t think it’s too late for Yelp to be a contender in local presence.

        Comment by Eric Wiesen — January 17, 2010 @ 10:34 am

      • Why not just keep the wordpress part and add disqus? Seems much easier than migrating (and risking breaking all your old links).

        Comment by kortina — January 17, 2010 @ 11:09 am

      • Kortina – embarrassingly, we’re on wordpress.com – so any implementation of disqus will require a migration to either hosted wordpress or tumblr. I use tumblr for my personal stuff and like it for this as well. Do you disagree?

        Comment by Eric Wiesen — January 17, 2010 @ 11:12 am

      • If you are migrating anyway, and familiar with Tumblr already, that is probably the easiest thing to do. Just don’t take down your old blog, otherwise people looking for an old post will be out of luck.

        Comment by kortina — January 18, 2010 @ 8:37 am

      • You write: “I think the answer is that for mainstream users, general-purpose solutions are almost always preferable unless they are really bad”

        To which, I disagree, respectfully. I think this use to be the case maybe 5-10 years ago (indeed the concept of the portal was built around your premise), but with the primacy of search and social applications like twitter, the ease of use of users finding points solution (and using them amongst a ready made and quickly growing social group) has grown exponentially. Plus, FB connect and OAuth (and emerging things like Web Finger) erase registration friction even further.

        For example – take Daily Booth. I submit one of the reasons it has grown because it with singular focus fills a need, one that FB fills but as FB grew into general purpose, DB has been able to grow. People sometimes just want to post pictures of themselves. Nothing more than that.

        Finally, I think GP > point used to be the case before the maturation of the web itself as the platform. With the web as the platform, point solutions – features – can and will thrive.

        Comment by Andy Weissman — January 18, 2010 @ 4:20 pm

  3. I think it depends how nicely the features of the point solution fit into the feature set & current traction of the general purpose one. Here, Yelpsquare appears to be a naturally fit for Yelp users.

    As an analogy, Bit.ly is doing well not necessarily because of its features (which I like), but likely because it’s the default on twitter and a nice fit there. Twitter might be considered a point solution from some veiwpoints, but from the url shortening perspective its a general purpose platform. And twitter’s Bit.ly feature is performing pretty well on its swiss army knife.

    Will Yelpsquare convert current Foursquare users? Likely not at all at first, if ever. But how many current active users does Foursquare have vs Yelp? The battle will be over future users and how well Yelpsquare performs (feature-wise and traction-wise) against Foursquare, until Facebook decides to launch its own version.

    Comment by John — January 17, 2010 @ 2:48 pm

    • John – there are some good points here. I think you note that there’s a continuum along which companies fall between a true point solution and a true universal solution. Depending on your context Twitter looks like a point solution (compared to say, Facebook) or a general-purpose solution (compared to bit.ly or twitpic).

      Your note about bit.ly is particularly interesting (disclosure note: RRE is an investor in Betaworks, who created bit.ly). Bit.ly is indeed a point solution around URL shortening. And no question bit.ly has succeeded in part because it’s the default on Twitter. The successful move happened in part because bit.ly did something important from Twitter’s perspective that they considered out of scope for their core business, so a partnership made sense. The analogy to Yelpsquare would be that Yelp isn’t in the core business of “check-ins”, so perhaps (as Jon Steinberg suggested) they should have partnered with Foursquare via their API. However I think there are a couple of differences: Primarily, I think Yelp considers this core functionality and a piece of the value chain they need to own. And secondarily the end-state business model of Foursquare (monetizing data around who goes where and what they say) is too similar to the end-state model for Yelp (monetizing data about what people say about local businesses) to partner. Just my opinion.

      Your point about future users vs. current Foursquare users is also spot-on in my view. This game is very early – only a couple hundred thousand people do any of this out of hundreds of millions of potential users.

      Comment by Eric Wiesen — January 17, 2010 @ 7:07 pm

      • Yes, I agree there’s a continuum of point/general purpose solutions and also depends on how you are looking at the given solution.

        There are interesting issues as to when to buy the point solution vs when to build it yourself. I think one of the smartest buys in the last couple of years was Twitter’s acquisition of Summize so early as it ended up being a pretty good fit into twitter’s platform. I was at the ny tech meetup that summize first presented at and was wowed by their presentation including the auto-translation Chinese/English right after the massive earthquake there. Seemed like twitter bought them weeks later. Surprised they haven’t bought bit.ly as well.

        Yes, the game is still early. With Google’s Latitude and Facebook & Twitter moving into the geolocation space, it should be pretty interesting.

        As I commented on Jon’s blog, in the end it might be King Kong vs Godzilla, with maybe Mortha flying about and the rest of the little start ups running around holding their white helmets on their heads. It’s an intensely competitive landscape, but not always a level playing field for innovative point solutions.

        Comment by John — January 17, 2010 @ 9:13 pm

  4. Eric, Generally, I couldn’t agree more with your perspective on this. One thing that we, as technologists, tend to forget, is that we’re willing to do a lot more and sample a lot more than most. Two-thirds of users seek the lowest common denominator in which ease of use and comfort of user experience matter more than feature set and performance. So, more often than not, general purpose solutions will beat out point solutions because simplicity rules at the end of the day. People, generally, don’t like change and, people, generally, don’t want to learn different processes and plans with every new feature/app that gets created. And, so, no matter how many FB Connect -like extensions are available, a common user interface with a systemic usage flow matters most to most end users. -Charlie

    Comment by Charlie Kemper — January 18, 2010 @ 6:06 pm

    • Thanks, Charlie. It’s a bit pat, but I tend to employ a fairly simple rule: if a consumer product appeals to me, it quite likely doesn’t appeal to mainstream users (the mythical “aunt in a small town” I often ask about during pitches). Not all consumer products have to be truly mainstream of course, and this rule doesn’t apply in all cases. But I find it to be a pretty good first cut.

      Comment by Eric Wiesen — January 18, 2010 @ 6:39 pm

  5. […] Point solutions or general-purpose ones? (fiveyearstoolate.wordpress.com) AKPC_IDS += "218153912,";Popularity: unranked [?] […]

    Pingback by 2 Million SocialGreat.com Checkins | Jon Steinberg — January 22, 2010 @ 9:22 am

  6. […] Point solutions or general-purpose ones? (fiveyearstoolate.wordpress.com) […]

    Pingback by Smart Phones are Commodities Already » Victus Spiritus — January 24, 2010 @ 2:29 pm

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