The pop-up restaurant theory of apps

Casey Newton, writing from “The Interface” newsletter on “Vero and the pop-up restaurant theory of social networks” back in July 2018:

Every year or so, a promising new social network bubbles up to the surface. You can probably name the biggest of these: Mastodon, Peach, Ello. I’ve come to think of them as pop-up restaurants. Their arrival in the neighborhood stirs momentary excitement among the early-adopter crowd, who enjoy the novelty of the experience and the sensation of being first. But pop-up restaurants are not built to last, and a few weeks later everyone goes back to eating Chipotle.

Long live though, amirite? 🍑

I first heard Casey’s theory during the July 26 episode of the Vergecast entitled “Instagram is TikTok now, BeReal is everywhere, and the Vergecast Hotline is back”1 (skip to ~30:28), where he provided an updated description of his theory, which I like even better than the original:

I have this pop-up restaurant theory of social networks, which is: every restaurant is basically the same, but sometimes a pop-up will open up in your neighborhood and all of the foodies start going there, and they’ve just kinda remixed the ingredients a little bit, and for two weeks all everyone wants to talk about is this restaurant.

Casey goes one to say that he thinks “social networks kinda work the same way, where on one hand, you’re just sharing photos with your friends” but that “they’ve cracked something kinda novel that makes it seems really appealing” and it’s just a matter of time to see if they can build something more substantial around that novelty. Casey has some really insightful thoughts on the ever evolving state of social media. You should read his posts and listen to this episode of the Vergecast.

Can the pop-up restaurant theory be applied to apps?

What I wonder is if there’s an equivalent theory that can be applied to apps. It is true that there are too many pizza restaurants apps. There are only so many ingredients. App fatigue is a thing. But our muscle memory for downloading apps is such that it’s not hard for a new pop-up app to break through given a sufficiently novel hook.

For pop-up restaurants, sometimes half of the novelty is the venue. Or the time exclusivity. Or both.

📸 by James Frid

📸 by James Frid

Even though the App Store is almost old enough to drive, the platforms — iPhone, iPad, and Mac – occasionally provide new capabilities that create the right mix of venue and time exclusivity. For the vocal minority early adopters all it takes is the venue, which we get every spring via WWDC and subsequent iOS, iPadOS, and macOS beta releases. But for the masses there is usually a combination of venue (new software features) and time exclusivity – either via new iPhones, or simply by being first to build an app that leverages some new API – facilitating pop-up restaurant levels of novelty that can break through the app fatigue.

In 2020, Apple introduced widgets to the iPhone via iOS 14. It was the same old ingredients Android users had been tasting since 20112, but it was a huge hit on iOS! It also provided the basis for new apps to pop-up, including the excellent Widgetsmith by David Smith (and the rip-offs). Like a legendary pop-up restaurant, Widgetsmith survived the hype and remains as a quite popular app in the App Store.

Fast forward to 2022 and Apple has another hit on its hands. The new photo background removal tool that is built-in to iOS 16 is providing the venue for this seasons breakout pop-up hits. A TikTok video by @macaulay_flower showing a clever use for background removal went viral earlier this month. The workflow shown in the video was using the built-in Camera, Photos, and Notes apps – but it might not be long before a pop-up appears:

And just when we thought the iMessage App Store was dead, Aaron Stephenson cooked up Sticker Drop which quickly ascended the App Store charts.

The Dynamic Island, introduced in the new iPhones 14 Pro, is the other breakout hit of this year’s updates from Apple, and Indie app developers are already popping up with new ideas there too.

By mixing the right venue (new features) with the right amount of time exclusivity (being first), apps can still pop-up break through the noise in 2022. Whether they stick around to become a full-fledged restaurant or at least reach food cart status3 still comes down to substance. If the food app is good, people will seek it out.

If enough people seek it out to garner the developer of the pop-up 1000 True Fans™, then perhaps the pop-up has served its purpose? That’s some food for thought. All this food talk has got me hungry though, so now it’s time for lunch.


  1. Following Casey’s July 19 post for Platformer on “Why BeReal is breaking out”, where he also links to his original 2018 post on his pop-up restaurant theory. ↩︎

  2. The Verge recalls that “While Android 1.0 and 1.1 technically included widgets, their full potential had yet to be realized because Google hadn’t exposed the SDK to developers. The only widgets you had available were the few included in the box. That changed in 1.5, and today, many (if not most) of the third-party applications on the platform ship with one or more widgets available to the user. It’s a big deal for Android, which continues to enjoy the most flexible, extensible home screen of any mobile platform — and that title traces its roots to the addition of this feature in Cupcake.” ↩︎

  3. Perhaps I should call my spinoff of Casey Newton’s theory the “Food cart theory of apps”. ↩︎