Apple’s upcoming Worldwide Developers Conference has once again brought upon us the predictable barrage of rumour, speculation, and concept pieces forecasting the future of tech’s favorite success story. The mainstream media, despite holding a woeful track record for Apple predictions, will inevitably be underwhelmed with linkbait predictions of impending doom. On the other hand, the ever-faithful Apple commentators will flood Twitter and the blogosphere with regurgitated rebuttals.
This cyclic phenomenon is usually clear cut, with lines clearly drawn months in advance of the big event. However, for once, there appears to be a loose consensus forming, with both sides finally acknowledging the truth always lies somewhere in the middle. Whilst Apple’s financials are predictably solid, user enthusiasm — including my own — for “the world’s most advanced mobile operating system” has begun to dwindle.
Apple’s response to the waning ardor for iOS has been uncharacteristically open so far, with CEO Tim Cook teasing upcoming “exciting new products” and the very public expulsion of iOS chief Scott Forstall, showing a marked departure from the Jobsian era of total secrecy. Most telling is the replacement of Forstall with Senior Vice President of Industrial Design Jony Ive, with a complete iOS interface refresh reportedly in the works. For months, rumors have suggested a new, flat aesthetic will replace the skeuomorphic approach favored by Forstall and Steve Jobs.
Despite the rumoured visual changes being lauded widely by commentators, the faults in iOS are foundational and not mere cosmetic imperfection — a fresh lick of paint shall not suffice. Mediocrity is not usually a term used with regards to Apple but is strangely apt when discussing the state of iOS’s stock applications (see “Five Apps Apple Could Delete from the iPhone,” 10 December 2012) and app interoperability — it is time for Apple to utilise the App Store’s prowess in giving users more control over their iOS experience.
Trust the iOS Developer Community -- The dedicated community of developers fostered by Apple since the introduction of the App Store has been a huge factor in the growth of iOS. In the beginning, the creation of compelling third-party apps was intended to supplement Apple’s core experience by filling out niche categories, not to surpass the stock offerings. However, paradoxically, those same independent developers have been out-innovating Apple for some time now — in both functionality and specific interface interactions — leading to widespread adoption of their apps.
The stock Mail, Calendar, and Safari apps are now easily supplanted by alternatives that might be superior for your needs (Gmail and Mailbox, Fantastical and WeekCal, and Google Chrome and Atomic Browser, to name a few examples) in a reversal of fortune that, in hindsight, seems to be a natural progression for the ecosystem — a progression Apple refuses to sanction. Despite the company’s seeming inability to compete with niche developers, Apple’s totalitarian approach ensures that the stock apps remain the de facto standard, effectively installing a neo-glass ceiling above the App Store’s supposed meritocracy, mimicking the famous cascading glass architecture of the Apple retail stores.
Apple’s refusal to allow alternatives to the default apps is troubling not only for developers but for users, too. For a company fixated upon delivering the best user experience, such stubbornness is far from endearing, especially given the laziness in optimising its own apps, with — for instance — Keynote Remote still lacking iPhone 5 support nine months after the device was released. The ability to choose a browser, calendar, and email client is a common feature request, and one that would placate many users’ frustrations.
Of course, given Google’s mammoth effort to provide most of its services on iOS as well as on Android, and with Google Maps, Gmail, and Voice Search proving hugely popular even while limited to second-class citizen status, it’s not surprising that Apple would shy away from opening up iOS. However, Apple pulling back from its authoritarian ethos need not mean permanently ceding ground to competitors like Google; rather, it should be seen as a compromise for iPhone and iPad users to get more from iOS, whilst giving Apple time to improve its own offerings. Modernizing the stock apps could be the key to seizing back users from the likes of Google in future. The still-beta Siri is another area for Apple to focus. Deeper integration into iOS and opening Siri up to independent apps would serve to combat enthusiasm for Google’s Voice Search (which will remain forever restricted) and encourage users to stick with iOS.
I am not advocating a complete tectonic shift in character for Apple. Marketplace apps like Newsstand, iTunes, and App Store are obvious cornerstones of the ecosystem, with alternatives being impractical and unnecessary. Similarly, foundational apps and technologies, such as WebKit and system-wide storage of photos and videos should remain entirely within Apple’s control. And, of course, Apple’s stock apps should remain the defaults for new users, who will largely stick with them due to lack of desire to explore for alternatives. When it comes to key apps like Mail, Calendar, and Safari, though, Apple is proving incapable of matching the innovations introduced by independent developers, and should give users a choice.
It is easy to forget that iOS 6 is less than a year old and is still a highly capable operating system. However, it would be naive to ignore the competition posed by Samsung and HTC, both of which threaten to overtake Apple as the “cool” brand. Despite the tech blog echo chamber’s derision of Samsung’s gimmickry, in the eyes of the fickle smartphone and tablet consumer market, Samsung is adding innovative features like Smart Pause, Smart Scroll, and Air Gesture whilst the usually inspiring Apple allows iOS to stagnate. A visual refresh would do much to appease the fickle nature of the market temporarily, but new, exciting capabilities are also required. By turning back to iOS’s foundation — the App Store developers — and allowing their innovative apps to be elevated by individual users to default status, Apple can knock off the proverbial pair of birds with a single stone.
Skirting Anti-Competition Regulators -- Another reason Apple may need to loosen its grip on iOS’s stock apps is to avoid drawing the attention of regulators — both in the United States and Europe. The company is the only remaining defendant in a U.S. Department of Justice lawsuit alleging a conspiracy to fix ebook prices, with the publishers having already settled out of court. Furthermore, the European Commission also has an eye on Apple’s sales and subsidization policies with a tussle potentially on the horizon — the larger you are, the more attention you draw. Historically, the DOJ has intervened when companies become too dominant in the common marketplace; for example, in 1999, Microsoft was found to hold an abusive monopoly over the personal computer market, which it achieved, in part, by tying Internet Explorer to Windows. Microsoft subsequently reached a settlement in 2001 to share its APIs (application programming interfaces) with third-party developers. Although Apple’s hardware dominance has begun to slip, it still maintains a firm grip on iOS software and, crucially, the mobile Web browsing market, too.
Despite Android’s superior user numbers (50 to 70 percent, depending on details), in terms of actual usage, iOS dominates its rival on mobile Web browsing figures. 62 percent of all such traffic comes from iOS’s stock Safari browser, with its Android equivalent coming in second with just 22 percent. Unsurprisingly, given it cannot be avoided for many core Web-related uses, Safari is the main browser on iOS with previous estimates suggesting only 15–20 percent of users prefer an alternative, with most of that traffic coming from internal browsers in other apps.
Such numbers are somewhat comparable with those of Microsoft during its period of monopoly, and, arguably, Apple has a similar control over the mobile market. The fact that the smartphone and tablet markets are still young makes regulatory action unlikely at this time, and no action has yet been announced. However, tying Safari to iOS whilst locking out alternatives could pique the interests of regulators, especially if a government official were to see going after Apple as politically expedient. So, if not for iOS developers or users, it may be worth conceding some control over iOS to stave off more bad publicity and potential legal action.
Customers Deserve Better -- Some apps, like Launch Center Pro and Drafts, have managed to circumvent Apple’s restrictions in part by implementing URL schemes in concert with other popular apps, whilst Google’s suite of apps has been designed to form a pod of interconnected services, almost like an Android invasion of iOS. However, despite being helpful, such workarounds are inherently more convoluted than natural navigation on iOS and simply make the most of a bad framework. The burden falls upon Apple’s shoulders to ensure its products function effectively rather than forcing developers to maneuver around arbitrary constraints.
As users we shouldn’t have to live with a limited platform, especially when Tim Cook himself acknowledged during the recent D11 conference that there is user demand for greater control, though he qualified that with, “…not to the degree that we put the customer at risk of having a bad experience. So there’s always a fine line to walk there, or maybe not so fine.”
It wouldn’t be hyperbolic to suggest that the willful restriction of iOS in terms of core apps risks valuable momentum should Apple walk the wrong side of that line. It is time for Apple to listen, adapt, and show where the company’s priorities truly lie — with some internal perception of what might be a bad customer experience or with what many vocal customers are saying is already not an ideal experience.
[Bio: Steven Smith is a freelance writer, blogger, and passionate bibliophile. He is a regular contributor to the AppStorm Network, founder of Curated Curiosity, and soon-to-be graduate of Law. He hails from Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England, and, yes, he loves tea.]