Topsy is the latest to face the sunset of the apps

Apple suddenly killed Topsy - two years after acquiring it. Can we rely on acquired apps when so many are sunsetted?

This is how a web service ends: not with a bang, but with a tweet:

And that created consternation – and apologies:

In reality, the only people who should be surprised are those who haven’t been paying attention. Apple acquired Topsy Labs two years ago, and they don’t look like a company that’s interested in getting into the Twitter analytics game. The clock was ticking from the moment the acquisition was announced. The only real surprise is that it took two years to strike “sunset”.

A Sunset swathe

However, Topsy is far from the first product to find its plot in the virtual graveyard in recent weeks. Dropbox “sunsetted” two of its products a week ago: Mailbox, a much-loved e-mail client it acquired (expensively), and Carousel, a photo-sharing app that didn’t get much traction.

The former may well have been hit by the difficult market for personal productivity apps:

The market for consumer productivity apps, which spurred companies like Dropbox and Evernote to multi-billion-dollar valuations, has proven to be mostly a mirage. Businesses are increasingly happy to buy software for their employees; people are often loath to buy software for themselves

(Evernote, too, has been rationalising side projects.)

And Facebook quietly took its Creative Labs division out the back, gave it a last smoke, and shot it. Fewer people noticed this time around, because very few of its apps – Rooms, Slingshot, Riff – had caught people’s imagination. Indeed, some of them were never available outside the US. Even the mighty Facebook couldn’t take its massive reach and use it to make these apps a success.

Apps are mortal, too

The horrible truth is that most apps die. A big backer is no guarantee of success. There’s a reason the term “unicorn” is en vouge for the companies that make it to success and a big, big valuation – because they’re very close to being mythical creatures. Some apps function as lifestyle business, some get sold. Most fail.

But is acquisition the road to death? Certainly it was for Topsy – Apple is notorious for killing its acquisitions, and absorbing their corpses into their products (see: Siri).

In particular, the Mailbox killing was bemoaned by many as a sign that getting acquired was a death sentence for an app. Developer Brent Simmons was having none of that:

Getting acquired may be the thing that keeps an app alive, or it might be the thing that kills it. Or it might keep an app alive just a little while longer.

And that’s the key: we’re in a time of rapid innovation and growth. And that brings with it a lack of certainty. Sure, makes apps part of how you work – but always keep mindful of the living force how you’ll work if it goes away. And it might.