Apple’s App problem

Posted by kdow on Feb 9, 2016 3:18:39 PM

AppsCamera app has traditionally been brilliant, but that’s not the axiom always felt on iOS.

I remember buying the first iPhone when it came out. I had to have it jailbroken (or whatever we called it back then) to make it work. It was an AT&T phone, but being in Ireland meant I had to hack my way around it to make it work.

The romantic idea of gliding my hand around a glass screen to interface with a phone was amazing. And sometimes I still catch myself lustfully fondling my phone, tablet or even the trackpad on my Mac.

I’m an Apple man, through & through. My household is filled with Apple products. I’ve infected non believers over the years. My wife’s family home was a cheap Windows house exclusively until I got my grip on them. Hand-me-down devices have created a mini ecosystem of Apple devices around me. A few years ago I ran a Genius Bar type of enterprise in an official reseller for Apple in Ireland (Apple still has no official retail outlet here).

Back then, the default Apple apps were all there was (until there was an app store for us jailbroken heathens, before the official App Store). And they were pretty great. Apple’s SMS app was better than my previous Nokia’s. T9 felt outdated compared to Apple’s auto-spell system. The calls app worked really well and was much faster than my old Nokia for finding people in my contacts to call. The list goes in that kind of fashion for a while.

My point is that back then almost everything felt innovative. It was a whole new way to interface with a phone, so each app was a whole new way to interface with features we were kind of already used to. But as the years went on, and iOS matured (alongside the App Store), iOS devices started to succumb to the same syndrome that OS X suffers. App mediocrity syndrome.

Innovation stops when there’s some small number of developers in Apple, subject to peer reviews, building lots of stuff for everyone. Which is what it feels like right now. Instead, other developers can slide in and build specific apps for specific groups of people. Apple’s notes app is a pretty bog standard app, to the point of feeling like the tutorial app you end up with in a “welcome to obj-c/swift” course. Meanwhile Wunderlist, Clear, Evernote and many other note-taking apps feel far more fleshed out & up to the job. Similarly Apple’s Podcast app feels like it was built by people who don’t really care much about podcasts. That’s why people love to use Overcast, Instacast, etc.

This is no different to OS X, to be fair. People take notes on Evernote, use iTerm for terminal commands, Chrome for web browsing, etc. etc.

The issue is that devices running OS X tend to have large hard drives that can store lots of apps. And because OS X is a more open system, users can do more with those apps (e.g. delete them). iOS doesn’t have that option, which results in bad user experience whereby they have a folder storing all of the Apple stuff that they’ll never actually use.

Because of that, Apple need to do one of two things (in my mind):

1. Make better apps.

Apple could pour better, more focused resources into the first party apps they create. It’s clear there’s a decent sized team working on internal apps, but they’re not focused. The same people shipping Podcasts were working on Settings a week before, and Wallet a week before that. Sometimes they get hyper focused on some app. Wallet, for example, seems really well thought out & fleshed out properly through various iterations. Notes, does not.

On top of that, there are real messes out there that feel like seven different teams dumped various code bases into one big architecture. Of course, I’m talking about iTunes. On iOS it’s tolerable, but not good enough. On OS X it’s a disheveled, homeless mess. I say ‘homeless’ because it feels like no one actively owns that app. If there’s a single product manager, designer and tech lead on the iTunes team then all three of those people need to be fired out of a canon built by Elon Musk’s team.

2. Allow removal of apps.

Apple makes a lot of money from it’s ecosystem (i.e. the App Store). As a result of the clear & persistent behaviour of people hiding Apple’s default apps in a folder somewhere, Apple should treat some of it’s default apps the way it treats iLife or iWork. Yes, they’re free. Yes, Apple loves to push them (especially to new users), but don’t force folks to keep them on their phones. Especially if Apple is going to insist on ridiculously small storage space on iPhones (16GB).

My thought is either Apple allows users to remove apps entirely, or don’t have them on the phone at the beginning & involve the app install as part of on boarding. Neither solution is nice, but if they’re not going to improve the apps themselves then this is the half-way house.

And that’s the crux of the problem. Apple’s long past the nexus of useful apps with thoughtful design. They’ve gone into the territory of kinda useful apps with god awful design. I’m sure everyone’s gotten lost in iTunes or Settings at least once. The point of posts by Gruber & other’s are simply that Apple, surely, is doing something about this. Accountability must fall with Ive, who’s the top exec for design in software for the business. Hopefully this negative attention is earning him some awkward meetings, which in turn forces his hand to improve things.

It’s not like we’ve entered a Windows 2000 era where the infrastructure sucks, apps are awful and there’s a long, dark road ahead. Apple’s still ahead of the curve in most respects. But Apple’s past years have been heralded with them being able to predict potholes on the road. I, and others clearly, feel like there’s a huge pothole on the road. And it feels like Apple’s not ahead of this impending issue. And we want Apple to get ahead of it. And that’s why there’s a huge amount of attention on this.