why big-name apps are stuck in the core, and why the future is single-celled

Jeremy Wagstaff
10 min readMay 18, 2021
‘graveyard’ by Walter Smith, 2004 (flickr, cc)

There’s a graveyard somewhere with the word Core on it. Relying on a core function is a killer. Think Dropbox. Twitter. Whatsapp. Evernote. All apps heading for Core Graveyard.

Here’s the thing.

In the old days the way to get your app noticed was to offer something no one else did, or did as well/cheaply. This was what everyone told you to do, right back to the idea of the mousetrap. But these days, because business models mostly revolve around freemium and subscriptions, this doesn’t work anymore. And it’s killing a lot of good products because they can’t navigate beyond from their core function without damaging the very thing that people like them for.

Take Evernote. The name is a great name because it describes what people like it for. You can take a note and save it forever. Or you could think of it as a verb, be forever taking notes. But to get people to take notes forever, or keep them forever, you need to offer it for free because there are, at least now, so many other players offering the same thing. So the story of Evernote is one of a company desperately looking to add some additional value to the product to justify charging for it.

The result: they have destroyed what drew users to it in the first place (I’ve been a user since at least 2005.) Evernote has added pretty much everything it can to the core functionality, including physical notebooks you supposedly scan (offering very little you couldn’t do manually as well if not better), but nearly every new feature gnawed away at the core, making the app less efficient at doing what made it appealing in the first place. If your unique selling point is being able to take notes easily, quickly and retrievably, then logically it follows that everything you add to the process actually detracts from its value.

Evernote is now a shadow of its former self. (Check out this Reddit thread for some of the recent pains expressed by users.) But you could have chosen any such thread from the past eight years or so and seen the same problems.

The same story can be repeated with many other apps and services.

Dropbox was once literally that, a digital box you could drop things in to share with others…

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Jeremy Wagstaff

Recovering journalist, deluded ambient composer, historian manqué, consultant, commentator, etc. ex Reuters, WSJ, BBC, Southeast Asia