Apps: Apple’s Fundamental Unit

During last week’s Apple event, Tim Cook said (among other things), “The future of TV is apps”. But he also spoke about what I’ve referred to elsewhere as Apple’s playbook, a set of five features that characterize all of Apple’s operating systems. One of these five was the App Store concept. Ever since the debut of iPhone OS 2 in 2008, apps have become an increasingly central component of the user experience on all of Apple’s devices. In fact, I’d argue apps are Apple’s fundamental units, the building blocks of which its various user experiences are built. I’m going to talk about what this means and both the strengths and some of the shortcomings of this approach.

The original iOS – apps only

For a long time, essentially the only functionality in iOS lived within apps themselves. For the first year, those Apple supplied with iPhone OS 1 and, subsequently, the combination of Apple’s apps and those that users installed from the App Store. The only exceptions were notifications and alerts associated with some of Apple’s apps, notably Phone, Messages, and Calendar. Over time however, Apple has allowed some of this functionality to migrate out of those apps, including the use of third party push notifications, widgets, Spotlight search, and Siri. Despite these extensions of functionality outside of app containers however, all these features still required the installation of apps that appeared on a home screen. That has huge benefits from a user perspective – you only ever experience things you’ve explicitly installed, those things can’t talk to each other without your permission, and you can easily uninstall them at any time. Add in the review process for the App Store and you get a guarantee, of sorts, that anything you do install in this way won’t misbehave.

Keyboards and content blockers, and Apple Watch

Last year’s release of iOS 8 brought a new category of apps to iOS: third party keyboards. This could have been an opportunity for Apple to change the app model to allow some functionality to exist in containers not defined by rounded rectangles sitting on a home screen – after all, these keyboards would only really exist as input methods within other apps. And yet Apple implemented these apps, too, in the same basic way. They then followed this same pattern with content blockers in iOS 9, released to the public yesterday. Like keyboard apps, these apps basically only exist to provide functionality within other apps and have no meaningful existence outside of them, but they also show up as app icons on a home screen.

With Apple Watch and what we might now think of as WatchOS 1, Apple also used this same “functionality=app icon” approach. In order to use an app on your Apple Watch, you had to install the companion app on your phone first. This led to a third situation in which you didn’t need an app icon on your home screen at all, but had to have one because of functionality you wanted to show up somewhere else – as an alternative keyboard, as a content blocker in Safari, or as an app on your Watch.

3D Touch builds on top of apps

The headline feature for the new iPhones Apple introduced last week is 3D Touch, which provides new ways for iPhone users to navigate around and interact with elements in iOS. However, what’s striking about 3D Touch to me is it’s very app-centric approach. While others – notably Google – are working hard to provide experiences that transcend apps (for reasons that are at least in part self-serving), 3D Touch reinforces the role of apps in the Apple ecosystem. In fact, 3D Touch only works in two contexts today: on the home screen, where users can deep press on app icons to access functionality normally buried within those apps; and within the apps themselves, where 3D Touch provides faster access to functionality normally buried a layer further down. Neither of these functions works without the apps themselves, whether Apple’s own or the third party apps that choose to support it.

The “junk drawer” problem

All this leads us to a Buzzfeed article written this week, in which John Paczkowski has a 20-minute conversation with Tim Cook on the way to a surprise drop-in at the 5th Avenue Apple Store in New York. During this conversation, one of the questions Paczkowski raises with Cook is, “Why are there apps on iOS I can’t delete even though I never use them?” Tim Cook’s response is interesting and fits right in with what we’ve been talking about. Hey responded with, “There are some apps that are linked to something else on the iPhone. If they were to be removed they might cause issues elsewhere on the phone.” Cook goes on to talk about the other apps that don’t fit this pattern and to suggest some of these might become optional downloads over time.

But that first part of the answer gets at the fundamental issue here: because apps are essentially the repository of almost all functionality on the iPhone, we have a variety of apps that exist almost entirely because they provide that functionality somewhere other than inside the app itself – whether that’s the Stocks app providing the data for its widget or the Weather app serving up the current temperature to a complication on the Apple Watch or other examples I mentioned earlier. At some point, it’s worth asking the question whether Apple’s fundamental model for apps should change, to allow some functionality to exist in some other layer – e.g. as an item in the Settings app – so as to allow a decluttering of the home screen. The key advantage of the current model is it’s always utterly transparent when you’ve installed an app and how to get rid of it. But the disadvantage is that, because of this transparency, you’re often hiding what I might call these “headless apps” in folders, making them harder to uninstall than if they were squared away in the Settings app or somewhere less obtrusive.

A different solution to the growth of pre-installed apps

I suspect the reality is most users don’t care an app is pre-installed per se, but that its icon is taking up what they consider valuable real estate on their home screen. Remove the app icon from the home screen, and the problem would largely go away. Apply this same model to some of these new types of apps – keyboards and content blockers – and you’d allow users to further declutter, something Apple itself has always prized. I wrote an Insiders piece here a couple of weeks ago about the growing number of pre-installed apps (including two new ones in iOS 9), and this approach would go some way toward mitigating the impact of this growth and the attendant filling up of our home screens. Intriguingly, one new app in iOS 9 gives users the option of whether to display it on the home screen – iCloud Drive is turned off by default, but can be turned on through the Settings menu. Two other apps – News and Podcasts – can be prevented from showing on the home screen, even though they show by default. This approach might be another interesting one for some of Apple’s own apps, if not third party headless apps.

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Jan Dawson

Jan Dawson is Founder and Chief Analyst at Jackdaw Research, a technology research and consulting firm focused on consumer technology. During his sixteen years as a technology analyst, Jan has covered everything from DSL to LTE, and from policy and regulation to smartphones and tablets. As such, he brings a unique perspective to the consumer technology space, pulling together insights on communications and content services, device hardware and software, and online services to provide big-picture market analysis and strategic advice to his clients. Jan has worked with many of the world’s largest operators, device and infrastructure vendors, online service providers and others to shape their strategies and help them understand the market. Prior to founding Jackdaw, Jan worked at Ovum for a number of years, most recently as Chief Telecoms Analyst, responsible for Ovum’s telecoms research agenda globally.

22 thoughts on “Apps: Apple’s Fundamental Unit”

  1. Android is doing it that way: there’s a list of all our installed apps somewhere, but not all of them have to be on our home screens. That way we have plenty of room for our widgets, and no mandatory “junk” folder.

    PS: Am I the only one getting a virus alert every time I get onto Techpinions ? Been going on for a week, sent a mail about it but got no answer ?

    1. I got it hit too. Last night was my first time. It happened when I clicked on an email from Disqus letting me know that there was a reply to a comment I’d made. So maybe it’s a Disqus problem, maybe not.

      For me, I definitely observed squirrely malware type behavior. Popup “Let us repair your PC.” With a website malware alert from Mac OS X. The only way to pull out of the behavior was to quit Safari. Relaunch. And quickly close (command-W) the Disqus window before the Popup had a chance to appear.

      My guess is Disqus is fighting this issue now. I think Techpinions ought to check into their emails too. This is about the limit of my geek powers. Maybe someone else can investigate. : )

      1. Thanks.
        I don’t think it’s a Disqus issue, I go to other Disqus sites with no issue.
        Indeed, first time in a week I didn’t get the warning, answering your post.

  2. Concerning hiding apps, Apple TV already does this. You can’t delete apps on the Apple TV but you can hide them and make sure they don’t show up. I do this with all the ones I don’t use. It really cuts down on the clutter. Apple should just create this option in the settings app for iOS devices.

  3. I’ve seen people with 7 screens of icons on their iPhone. And this includes folders with app icons in them. Most people do not have the cognitive capacity to keep track of that many items. And I suspect a person with 7 screens of icons are interacting with their phones all day so they know what every icon is about. This is information overflow seeping down to the everyday personal level, and it’s something previous generations have never encountered.

    I think the app approach is the most convenient way to access a phone’s functionality probably because it is the method that most closely mirrors the way people think. The problem is when you start accumulating apps, and the source isn’t the app approach per se, but as I said, the limits of human cognition.

    One way Apple can alleviate the problem is to put a setting that allows for automatic categorization and grouping of apps when you download them. Right now, it seems that they just put the icon on the first available “plot of land” on the screen. A simple thing like separate screens for productivity, games, e-commerce, etc. and new apps are placed automatically where they belong. Or is this feature already offered and I just don’t know it?

      1. I think that’s a very interesting point. I personally haven’t used the search bar too much, but if usage is actually very high, then it opens up all sorts of strategic possibilities for Apple.

    1. My current Android does it the Apple way (all apps on the Home screen), and that’s really a pain. Even with the best folders I could come up with (media, games, travel&work, tools, junk, and Google), I’m still losing track of apps.

  4. I’d suggest Apple implement an “Extensions” app, where all “headless” apps like keyboards/content blockers/Watch apps go. Opening the Extensions app you’d see a view more like the Settings app, rather than a folder. First you’d see a list of extensions categories, and then within each category there’d be a continuous vertical scrolling list of all the matching extensions apps you have installed.

    Within the actual Settings app there could be duplicate access points to some of the extensions (such as under Keyboards, for keyboard extensions).

    A precedent for this is the old Newstand app. Everything in it was basically a full compiled app, but it was presented in a more appropriate way than as just an app icon in a folder.

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