In 1983, Microsoft developers Richard Brodie and Charles Simonyi wrote a UNIX program that would eventually become Microsoft Word. It did one thing: word processing.
Late last year, entrepreneurs Alexandre Lacheze and Julien Berthomier packaged together Google Docs, Gmail, Slack, Skype, Trello, LinkedIn and Salesforce all in one app. They called it Station. It can do everything.
Station is among a growing category of software that bundles together a sprawling buffet of cloud-based apps in a single interface. The result is a sort of digital Swiss Army knife where you can quickly jump between the cloud apps you use the most. You can chat, write documents and organize projects all within the same app.
Station’s team calls it “one app to rule them all.” Berthomier simply calls it “a web browser for work.”
The creators of these bundling programs say they’re reinventing how people use cloud applications. There has been an explosion of cloud apps over the last five years, and as a result, people find themselves working for large chunks of their days in their web browsers.
The problem, says Berthomier and others, is that conventional web browsers were designed for reading; they stink for working in apps.
In a conventional browser, tabs containing apps are cumbersome to switch between and are designed to be fleeting, the developers say. Worse still, a jumble of browser tabs sucks up a computer’s memory. “The fan is whizzing away. Your computer dies,” said Rhys Jones, CEO of another app bundler called Wavebox.
Apps like Wavebox and Station make it possible to switch nimbly between cloud apps. In both of those programs, cloud applications like Gmail, Skype, Google Docs and Salesforce — stack vertically on the left side of the app. You can click a ‘plus’ button to add more apps. Apps can go to “sleep” to preserve a computer’s memory and processor. The experience isn’t quite the same as working in a native app; load times can be a little laggy, but it’s an overall improvement over an old-school browser. Station lets you search across apps.
App bundlers are starting to catch on. Last year, Paris-based Station beat out Firefox Quantum as Product Hunt’s product of the year. Station, which just completed the coveted Y Combinator startup boot camp, announced this week that it has received $3.2 million in seed funding. Station says it has more than 12,000 users. What’s more, he said, people using the app use it for an average of five hours each day.
Johnson, of Wavebox, which is based in the U.K., said his company’s app has 10,000 active weekly users and is growing by 1,000 new users each week.
Key to app bundlers’ recent popularity is a software framework called Electron. Electron is at the core of existing cloud apps like Slack and Trello, and it makes it possible for Station, Wavebox and others to create what amounts to a new kind of web browser that can send alerts and notifications. And since Station and Wavebox are web browsers at their core, they needn’t pay licensing fees for the cloud apps they package. (Google declined to comment.)
Electron also allows cloud apps to behave much more like native programs — with notifications, do-not- disturb setting and calendar alerts, said Eric Shashoua, CEO and Founder of Kiwi, a popular OS X app that bundles Gmail and G-suite apps. Compared to a browser, he said, “You can do a whole lot more from a technical perspective.” For example, Kiwi lets you open Google documents and spreadsheets in their own windows — and leave those windows open for days if you like.
And then there’s the added focus these apps are trying to offer in an increasingly scatterbrained digital world. Station, Wavebox and others are meant to help people zero in on just the apps they need to do their work. Having a dedicated work browser makes it harder to end up on Facebook on your way to that Google Doc that’s due in two hours.
Jennifer Mankoff, a University of Washington professor of human-computer interaction and accessibility, said she expects these kinds of apps to become increasingly popular — especially those that bundle communication apps. Mankoff said she’s used an app called Franz that pulls together a wide array of chat apps.
People are increasingly expected to stay on top of a half-dozen or more communication channels, she said. Case in point: Mankoff said she has to monitor multiple Slack channels, Piazza, Facebook, multiple Gmail accounts and WhatsApp. An app like Franz, she said, “has the potential to really reduce that burden.”