Clearly, apps are one of the key factors in the success of the iPhone, iPod touch and iPad. The ability to download apps and customise your device to your tastes means you can to make it be what you want it to be.
That’s all except for system apps – the ones that come bundled with iOS. These are slightly different on each iOS device, but what they have in common in that you can’t uninstall them, and in some cases it’s difficult to use a replacement.
What could Apple change to give users more choice in the apps they use?
The apps I’m thinking of are the built-in apps for all iOS devices:
- iPod (Music & Video on the iPod and iPad)
- App Store
- iTunes Store
These only feature on the iPod touch and iPhone:
These are for iPhone only:
- Phone – anyone use that one?
You can already effectively replace all of the above with replacements from the App Store, with the exceptions of:
- the App Store itself (unless your iPhone is jailbroken and you use Cydia)
- the iTunes Store (no Amazon MP3 Store for you!)
- Messages (there are no replacement SMS apps, although some apps can provide MMS functionality, or messaging through push notifcations)
- Phone (although Google Voice telephony apps are back in the App Store, so that is an option)
With iOS 4, Apple has opened up the operating system considerably, so that apps can read and write hitherto verboten databases.
As an example, I’ve installed Calvetica by Mysterious Trousers. There was zero setup to access my existing calendars – the app was able to use the iPhone’s calendar database. It can read and write this database, and use the local notification system. I’ve effectively replaced Apple’s choice of calendar with my own.
Apart from a kick-ass interface, the app is blazingly quick, and quicker than Apple’s own Calendar app. The developers are extremely responsive and are rapidly rolling out new features. It’s not yet a drop-in replacement for the built-in Calendar app, but I’d absolutely recommend trying Calvetica. The intended feature list looks spot on (link)
So I can get my calendars, my way, without having to wait on Apple to roll out another OS update (which, as a jailbroken iPhone user, I have to wait a little longer for). The camera is another example. I can buy any old camera app now, and it can write to the native photos database. Bing! Photos show up in my camera roll within the Photos app, with all the integration that entails.
In these instances, we’re installing apps that provide a different user interface and feature set, but which access the same data as Apple’s built-in apps.
This means that some with some apps – such as Calendar – I can ditch Apple’s apps and use my preferred options.
Some apps are more equal than other
Apple has treated its system apps differently, and continues to do so. The iPhone has always been able to multitask, but only with iOS 4 has that option been granted to 3rd-party apps.
What happens when you click an email address in a web page? Mail opens. I can download a different app for email, but that mailto: link will always open the default mail client: Mail.
Put simply: give me the option to choose default apps.
I’ve long thought that the iPhone would benefit from a much more fully-featured email client, such as Profimail for S60. It’s an HTML email-creating, ultra-configurable client designed for mobile, where bandwidth is often a problem. Download headers only? No problem. There’s no such level of options in Mail. But even if Profimail comes to the App Store, it’ll be a second-class citizen. That mailto: link’s still going to open Mail.
The same goes for Messages. I know one person who won’t switch to the iPhone, solely because she wants the option to create Draft SMS templates. You just can’t do that with Apple’s SMS app.
Apple could instantly make the iOS platform more attractive by allowing users to choose default apps for certain functions.
Going my way already, Apple?
Apple have allowed alternative app launching to a small extent already: there’s a URL schema to launch apps. For example, Byline can be launched with the custom URL “byline://”. There’s more on usage here.
Unfortunately, Apple have not included this functionality in two of the core apps, Mail and Messages. The schema is also dependent on developers coding support into their apps.
Another approach would be to allow a Services menu for the iPhone, which would allow for so much more cross-pollination between apps. Check out Chris Clark’s post, it’s a good read and the video shows how it would work.
Neither of these approaches would change what happens with that mailto: link and Mail, but it’s a start.
Let’s push it a bit more
Apple could go further: make all their apps also available for download on the App Store. They could then be updated independently of operating system updates, allowing Apple to iterate more rapidly. Take yesterday’s release of Remote app 2.0 as an example.
How likely are they to decouple built-in apps such as Mail? Not likely, I reckon. Exactly the same situation persists with OS X. Mail, iCal, etc are only updated with operating system updates – and are often touted as OS enhancements when they’re just application updates.
But at least you can trash Mail and iCal on your desktop if you choose. I’m asking for the same amount choice on my mobile device.