Apps: Apple’s Fundamental Unit

on September 18, 2015
Reading Time: 5 minutes

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.