Bundling and Unbundling
Posted on Nov 19th, 2021

"Every program attempts to expand until it can read mail. Those programs which cannot so expand are replaced by ones which can." – Jamie Zawinski

This famous quote known as Zawinski's Law of Software Envelopment describes a tendency of software products towards platformisation. We can see this trend throughout the history of computers. Emacs the legendary text editor famous for its extensibility can be configured to manage files, email, RSS feeds and even can serve as a platform for games. Web browsers originally built for reading hypertext documents have developed into platform that run complex applications and cover most of our needs. All kinds of office and creative suites are also examples of bundling.

All-in-one solutions are also common in the SaaS world. Marketed as a way to reduce noise and confusion, save costs they try to accommodate all of the needs within a given market sector.

Something saves us from software singularity though. It is the fact that in most cases bundling reaches its natural limits beyond which a platform either completely changes its purpose (as it is the case with Web), or simply becomes overly complex for its users.

In later case, a reactionary tendency - unbundling emerges. We get apps that take one aspect of a platform and do it well. Separate calendar apps and email clients are created each year with a focus on solving neverending usability issues that we have in the bundled alternatives. Apps like Slack, Notion, Discord and others are "extracted" from the web browser and shipped as standalone tools using technologies like Electron.

Predictably, a wave of unbundling brings us complexity of a different type - too many products to manage. And this inevitably causes another wave of bundling. We have examples of this cycle in most areas of software products.

However, there are also platforms that keep growing in prominence and escape major unbundling waves. Original host products turn into so-called Super Apps. They start serving as major distribution channels for third party products and services. A well known example of this is WeChat with its many mini-apps. And a less obvious example is Google Maps, that has outgrown its purpose as a navigation tool and has turned into a powerful platform that helps us discovering new places,  making restaurant reservations, ordering taxi rides and more.

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