Should Facebook own us? In praise of (lots of little) apps

1. The app approach to signal vs. noise

Seems our electronic lives have become nests of priority inboxes. No, I don’t mean Google’s latest Gmail enhancement, but something more longstanding and fundamental.

The web’s loosely knit components – by now we call them web apps – have allowed us to layer on services and tools, as if the next thing might save us from the noise and bring us just the message we want just when we want it.

And now we’re using phone apps for this.

This came to me when I found myself sifting through pages of the 37Signals Backpack app, trying to decide what to move to SimpleNote or Taskpaper or the app-of-the-week so that I can have my lists on the phone and generally be Better Organized.

2. Nobody goes there anymore, it’s too crowded.

SMS is better than email, because it’s instant – and because only those folks I really care about have my cell phone. Twitter is better than email because, though not similarly exclusive, it’s briefer.

Specialized services like Runkeeper for fitness or Remember the Milk’s to-dos app our brains. They do one thing well, and give us room not to be bugged by other stuff.

But strong as these single-taskers can be, discovery is an issue. There are so many of these services, and a whole cottage industry of blogs has cropped up to support finding and rating them. On the phone, the app stores, pioneered by Apple, have helped hundreds of small developers be discovered.

Opposing specialization are the platforms. Facebook does chat, messaging, calendar, address book – maybe one day soon even telephone with Skype. I’ve known people from planet Facebook who have not bothered to obtain a terrestrial email address. What’s the point? Only their moms would use it.

For its part, Google has added tasks and address book and a host of more social services like Buzz to its basic Gmail.

Despite being so far ahead in app discovery, Apple has built their iOS app store into a garden walled by enforcing commitment to Objective C and their developer tools.

So I don’t share Jess3’s wishes for a super Foursquare that checks me in wherever I am, automatically. Nor do I agree with Mark Zuzckerberg, that I have just one persona to share with the world. Facebook’s new Groups function may make it easier to keep family separate from work. If it did, I might spend more work efforts there – some of the conversations there are topnotch.

Instead, I’ll use one app for blog posts, another for my shopping lists. Inefficient it may be, but that’s how I like it.

But what happens when the platforms get serious about enabling apps, instead of undermining them?