Apple’s default iOS apps are great. They exude the simplicity and polish for which the company is known. But they do not and should not suit everyone’s needs, and they should not be our only options to handle core tasks. iOS users need control over default apps.
There is currently no (legitimate) way for iOS users to perform core tasks with alternative apps. For example, you cannot tap an email link in Safari to create a new message with anything but Mail. All web links open in Safari, events in Calendars, directions in Maps, and so on. If you prefer Fantastical over Apple’s Calendar, or Mailbox over Mail, or Google Maps over Apple’s, tough luck—they can’t fit into your regular workflow because iOS and its apps are hardwired out of the box to use Apple’s apps for core tasks. iOS and the massive app ecosystem Apple touts become less useful.
Third-party developers can choose to use alternative apps for core tasks, but it’s a manual process every step of the way. Each developer has to hardwire their app to talk to any other relevant apps. For example, if you want your news app to send article links and text snippets to Evernote, Springpad, WordPress, Simplenote, Tumblr, or any number of other apps, the developer has to deliberately build in a login system or at least sharing buttons for each and every service. It’s tedious, untenable, and a terrible experience for users.
Everything to no one
Apple’s iOS apps try to cover the needs of most customers and, in that regard, they are quite successful. But while many customers have not had complex needs in the past, that’s changing. There are more apps and services, and we have more perpetual connectivity to them, than ever before—thanks largely in part to the wildly successful App Store economy Apple helped create.
But when customer needs grow beyond the features Apple decides to build, we are nevertheless shackled to Apple’s apps for core tasks. We’re prohibited from doing what we want using the tools we need. Perhaps even more aggravating, when I’ve brought up this topic in the past on social media, a handful of Apple engineers have reached out to explain that, if we need one feature or another in Apple’s core apps, we should file a feature request. Apple will consider it, and if it deems the feature worthy of 500+ million customers, we might get lucky.
This approach is untenable for Apple, its developers, and its customers.
Apple can’t add and continually update a zillion integrations to iOS and its apps. At the same time, customers can’t keep growing to depend on the third-party apps Apple so loves to push without getting a much better, frictionless experience.
I save websites and text to a mixture of OmniFocus, Pocket, Evernote, and more. As the user base of the App Store and its many third-party services has exploded in the last half decade, I’m clearly not alone. Pocket now boasts nearly 10 million users, Evernote has 50 million. Enough for Apple to care about? Apparently, not yet. But do those users deserve a great, frictionless experience on what Apple claims is the best mobile OS on the planet? Yes.
The illusion of choice
Apple actively encourages users to adopt any and all of the 850,000 apps in the App Store, including the mountain of alternatives to its default apps. Pushing all those apps—a growing number of which are designed to replace core app functionality—is pointless and increasingly insulting if those apps continue to be cut off at the knees.
I would actually understand Apple’s current position if it fulfilled the persistent, inaccurate myth of being anticompetitive by banning and removing apps that can perform core tasks. It would draw a much clearer line about what we can and can’t do with iOS.
Lead, don’t follow
Instead of allowing people’s needs to grow and take them beyond what iOS can offer, Apple could enhance iOS to accommodate those users without negatively impacting the rest.
Maybe it’s a new option, buried somewhere in Settings, with a list of core tasks (email, calendar, contacts) and apps that can be assigned for them. If you’ve searched for public transit options using Apple Maps to see the list of third-party apps which can handle your request, that’s in the ballpark of what I’m talking about. Plus, that list displays both installed apps and relevant App Store options; discoverability in this mechanism would benefit everyone, including third-party developers and Apple.
Maybe it could be even simpler than that, maybe the Settings option needs a big red button that warns users of what they’re about to do. Those are challenges that Apple’s capable UX designers and hey, YouTube mockup artists can tackle.
The bottom line is, by giving users control over default apps for core tasks, those who need more out of iOS could get it, while users who are happy with Apple’s defaults can stay that way. Everybody wins.