Ap­ple: Don’t de­fault on de­fault apps

It’s about time Ap­ple let us take our pre­ferred apps into our own hands, writes Dan Moren

iPad&iPhone user - - CONTENTS -

Since the ear­li­est days of iOS, Ap­ple has kept tight con­trol on its users’ re­la­tion­ship with apps. The very first iPhone, of course, only shipped with a dozen or so pre­in­stalled soft­ware pro­grams: you couldn’t add more, you couldn’t delete the ones you had. Over the years, Ap­ple has loos­ened those stric­tures a bit. First you could add new third-party apps. Later,

de­vel­op­ers were even able to cre­ate and sell soft­ware that com­peted with some of those de­fault op­tions. More re­cently, you’ve even been able to delete some of those built-in apps. (Adios, Stocks.)

But more than a few re­stric­tions have re­mained nonethe­less. Most ob­vi­ously, the pro­hi­bi­tion on in­stalling soft­ware from any­place other than the com­pany’s own App Store. I don’t take par­tic­u­lar is­sue with that; the preva­lence of mal­ware and se­cu­rity breaches these days means you can’t be too care­ful, and Ap­ple’s ap­proach has had proven merit.

That said, there’s still one ma­jor place that Ap­ple could stand to re­lax its rules: let­ting users choose de­fault apps for tasks like mail, cal­en­dar­ing, and web brows­ing. And, given a re­cent anti-com­pe­ti­tion rul­ing against ri­val Google in the EU for a sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tion, this is­sue may come to the fore­front sooner rather than later.

Good for users

For users, the ben­e­fits of choos­ing de­fault apps is ob­vi­ous. Right now if you tap a web link in most apps you get taken to Sa­fari, re­gard­less of whether you’d rather use Chrome or Fire­fox. The same for mail links: if you’d rather com­pose your mes­sages in Out­look or Gmail, you have to jump through some hoops to make it hap­pen.

Not ev­ery­body is go­ing to switch to a third-party app if this hap­pens. Most peo­ple prob­a­bly are prob­a­bly happy enough with the de­faults. But for those peo­ple who want a fea­ture that Ap­ple’s apps don’t cur­rently have – like snooz­ing mail mes­sage alerts or sync

be­tween Chrome on iOS and your PC – the choice to use that app as the de­fault should be avail­able.

Ap­ple has made some con­ces­sions to third­party apps over the years, es­pe­cially when it added ex­ten­sions and ex­panded the Share sheet in iOS 8. It’s now pos­si­ble for other apps to of­fer to han­dle spe­cific types of data rather than re­quir­ing you to, say, copy and paste the in­for­ma­tion, where such a thing was even pos­si­ble. Given that, it’s not im­plau­si­ble for the com­pany to even­tu­ally al­low other apps to reg­is­ter as the de­fault han­dler for a par­tic­u­lar task.

Good for de­vel­op­ers

De­vel­op­ers who com­pete di­rectly with Ap­ple’s built-in apps (like Mail, Sa­fari, and Cal­en­dar) have al­ways had an up­hill bat­tle ahead of them. How do you take on an app that’s in­stalled on ev­ery sin­gle iPhone for free? Es­pe­cially when your app will al­ways be a sec­ond-class cit­i­zen. Al­low­ing users to choose their own de­fault apps won’t fix all of those prob­lems, but it will go a way to­ward mak­ing these apps vi­able for even more peo­ple.

There are plenty of users who don’t want to de­vi­ate from Ap­ple’s pre­scribed ap­proach be­cause they don’t want to worry about things be­com­ing more com­pli­cated. Try, for ex­am­ple, to demon­strate that you can ac­com­plish tasks that are usu­ally sim­ple but re­quire the ex­tra step of go­ing to a Share sheet is go­ing to get more than a few to back away slowly. Al­low­ing third-party apps to be set as the de­fault can also let de­vel­op­ers po­ten­tially build more new and in­ter­est­ing fea­tures that in­te­grate with the rest of iOS in a way hith­erto not pos­si­ble.

Good for Ap­ple

At first blush, it seems like this move would be a step back­wards for Ap­ple. Apps like Mail and Sa­fari are deeply in­grained into iOS, and it would cer­tainly re­quire some big sys­tem-wide changes.

And what’s the in­cen­tive? Af­ter all, the com­pany al­ready has a cap­tive au­di­ence for its apps. Why would it want to give that all up? But the risk of that cap­tive au­di­ence is com­pla­cency. Ap­ple’s pace of up­dat­ing its built-in apps has slowed a bit in re­cent up­dates; for ex­am­ple, Con­tacts and Cal­en­dar have hardly changed in the past few years. Mean­while, third-party apps have tried to set them­selves apart by in­no­vat­ing ever more ag­gres­sively.

Of course, Ap­ple isn’t forced to re­spond to those new fea­tures, be­cause its user base erodes only by small

amounts to those third-party com­peti­tors. Open­ing up de­fault app choice would force the com­pany to com­pete more with those third-party apps, re­sult­ing in apps that would not only be able to re­tain users who might oth­er­wise turn to other apps, but also ul­ti­mately make that soft­ware a bet­ter ex­pe­ri­ence for the users who don’t leave.

Plus, as men­tioned above, the EU is clearly look­ing into the an­ti­com­pet­i­tive na­ture of pack­ag­ing de­fault apps into smart­phone op­er­at­ing sys­tems. That’s not to say that Ap­ple will def­i­nitely find it­self in the EU’s crosshairs – de­spite the large vol­ume of iPhones Ap­ple sells, it re­mains only a small seg­ment of the smart­phone mar­ket – but nei­ther can the even­tu­al­ity be ruled out. This kind of proac­tive ap­proach might go a long way to show­ing that Ap­ple is about en­abling user choice.

Would it ever make such a move? It’s long al­lowed dif­fer­ent de­fault apps on the Mac, but iOS has been much more locked down from the get-go. There was a time I might have ar­gued that Cu­per­tino would never make such a change, but as my col­league Ja­son Snell points out on page 70, the com­pany’s rule book isn’t as set as it used to be. Es­pe­cially when mak­ing such a change could be a net pos­i­tive for ev­ery­body in­volved in the Ap­ple ecosys­tem.

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