Where indie developers might (or might not) fit into app constellations

There may be a few indie developers who are so optimistic about their prospects that they shoot for the moon, but I doubt even the most bullish ever seriously think much about app constellations.

First coined by venture capitalist Fred Wilson, app constellations sometimes refer to the notion of apps operating less as siloed pieces of mobile software but somehow linking functionality or user profiles in a way that provides greater value. The most often cited case is Facebook Messenger, in which the company embarked on a love-it-or-hate-it strategy of spinning off the way its users could communicate on a smartphone by requiring them to do a separate download.

As a recent post on Quibb notes, however, app constellations have not proven to be, well, stellar as a strategy for most other other organizations. The site gathers opinions from a range of experts on why and what the future holds. I thought the best summation came from Casey Winters, growth lead at Pinterest:

"Successes seem to crowd around these specific strategies: Acquire already successful apps and cross-promote. Unbundle a part of existing app that is already successful and go for niche or broad appeal. Cross-promote new apps heavily and recognize you'll have wins and losses."

What's somewhat missing from this discussion is the idea that app constellations might be something that happens outside the realm of large studios or publishers. Of course, there are plenty of indie developers who struggle to achieve any kind of real momentum with one app, let alone breaking it out into piece parts or cobbling together several into a single entity. It's worth wondering, however, whether this is a growth tactic that might be more appropriate for a smaller shop that's trying to grow.

For example, large organizations of any kind often hit a plateau because they get really good at one thing, saturate their initial market and then can't fully afford to launch a new product, service or division that can compete with the up-and-coming rivals that offer better or more cost-effective services. A consultant called Clayton Christensen discusses this at length in a classic book he co-wrote called "The Innovator's Dilemma," and in some respects the experiments with app constellations might be described as the Publisher's Dilemma. Do apps with huge installed bases like Facebook (or more notably Foursquare, which has become the poster child for failing at app constellations) risk setting up a universe that existing and future customers don't want to inhabit?

The only realistic way I see this working is if an indie developer were to plan out an app constellation in advance. For instance, launching an initial app that would drive a lot of interest, then follow it up with companion apps that may appeal to distinct segments of its target audience. Or launch them simultaneously and market the benefits of mixing, matching or using all apps in the constellation at once.

This could obviously require a significant among of strategic know-how, an ability to act quickly on what the analytics tell you and a not-insignificant marketing budget. That doesn't mean it's impossible, though. As the industry watches with skepticism the future of large app constellations, it's worth keeping an eye on what else might be moving into orbit. --Shane

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