When Apple announced iOS 8 last June, the company seemed to turn a new leaf.
This year’s update to the world’s most influential mobile operating system lets apps do things that once seemed unthinkable on the platform. Developers can add their own widgets to the Notification Center, create alternative keyboards, and put actionable notifications on the lock screen. Apple even opened up new lines of communication between apps, letting them share links on a wider swath of social networks, or access files directly from cloud storage services.
With all these new powers for developers, Apple relaxed its traditionally tight grip on iOS. But developers are already thirsting for more openness. While no one expects iOS to turn into Android–a platform where almost anything goes–here are some realistic things that the company could do to allow for more powerful apps:
It’s not easy competing with built-in apps such as Mail, Calendar, and Safari. Users who’ve switched to alternatives–such as Dropbox’s Mailbox for email or Sunrise for calendars–will still occasionally get dumped into Apple’s apps, usually when another app tries to perform some core function. It’d be nice if users could set their preferred option as the default, but it’d be even better of these default apps were granted the same perks as Apple’s in-house software.
For instance, Apple’s own iCloud has much deeper access to the iOS file system than other cloud storage services, and it has fewer restrictions on when it can run in the background. Without those capabilities, other services are at a disadvantage, said Derek Labian, CEO of MediaFire. They can’t back up files as reliably–many services try working around this by triggering uploads when the user’s location changes–and can’t automatically sync anything but photos and videos.
“The things that they do with iCloud, or iTunes, or their photos app, if they were restricted in the same way that we were restricted, then of course they would add more APIs that could do more because they have capabilities they want to build in their apps,” Labian told Fast Company.
The chatter about opening Siri to third-party apps began almost immediately after Apple unveiled its virtual assistant in 2011. But after three years of updates, Siri integration remains limited to just a handful of Apple-approved services, such as Yelp and OpenTable.
Sumit Mehra, chief technical officer at mobile strategy firm Y Media Labs, still thinks third-party Siri integration is inevitable, but only after the quality of its core voice services becomes more competitive with Google. “Apple’s probably playing catch-up in that area, and hasn’t been able to successfully do it as of yet,” he said.
In fairness, even Google hasn’t figured out how to seamlessly fold third-party apps into its voice commands yet, though users can select a default app for certain actions such as music playback and navigation. It may be a while before Siri commands like “play this song in Pandora” or “share this task in Any.do” become reality.
The rumors of an NFC-equipped iPhone finally came true this year, with Apple using the technology in the upcoming Apple Pay. The iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus’s NFC antennas will let users check out at the cash register by tapping their phones against a credit card reader, without even having to touch the screen.
Y Media’s Mehra said he’s talked to lots of developers who’d like to use NFC in their applications. The iPhone’s NFC chip could eventually be used to unlock doors, pair devices, and transfer data without any screen interaction, or it could allow for alternative services to Apple Pay.
But while broader NFC support is theoretically possible according to one expert, Apple says it’s locking down the technology to Apple Pay for now. “I think they’re taking it slowly yet steadily,” Mehra said, noting how Apple waited a year to open Touch ID to third-party apps. “NFC is probably going to probably play out the same way.”
While it’s unlikely that the array of third-party launchers and lock screens of Android will ever find a home on iOS, there’s still room for more flexibility. Apple’s own apps, for instance, can change the appearance of their home screen icons, so the Calendar app shows the correct date, and the Clock app shows the current time. Omer Perchik, founder and CEO of Any.do, said in an email that he’d love to extend those capabilities to his company’s Cal app.
And while Apple did open the Notification Center to third-party widgets in iOS 8, it’s still figuring how how developers should use the new feature. Greg Gardner, whose Launcher widget allowed users to put app shortcuts in the Notification Center, learned this the hard way last month, when Apple allowed the utility into the App Store, then removed it without explanation.
Gardner says that Apple’s guidelines don’t expressly forbid widgets like Launcher, leading him to think Apple hadn’t even considered the issue before his app arrived. “I think I just sort of forced the issue for them to think about it, and they made a decision on it,” he said.
Although Apple did project a warmer, fuzzier side when it announced iOS 8, the company can still come off as opaque and unaccommodating to developers. Some developers are hoping that Apple itself becomes more open and flexible, just as its operating system has.
Gardner, for instance, was at least hoping to find out why his Launcher app was removed, but Apple wouldn’t provide answers. “They like to speak in riddles, and be very vague, and give you minimal information required, which makes it even more frustrating,” he said.
MediaFire’s Labian described similar frustrations with scheduling background uploads for his company’s cloud storage app. Developers have no way of predicting when their apps will run in the background–likely to prevent developers from exploiting the system–and this makes debugging difficult, especially with Apple’s lengthy approval process for app updates. “As with any black box, we’re just poking around, hoping what we think is happening, is happening,” Labian said.
Of course, more openness could also mean more problems. Jiho Kang, the lead developer for an app called Wayfare, pointed out in an email that lax restrictions that Android developers enjoy can encourage lazy code, which gobbles system resources and saps users’ battery life. “Apple’s system forces developers to become more disciplined in writing code and become creative about solving problems,” Kang said. “This means better quality apps.”
But maybe there’s a way for Apple to give more power to trusted developers, with added capabilities or at least a fast track for app updates. While the equal opportunity nature of the App Store served Apple well for many years, it’s also holding back well-meaning developers because of the occasional bad egg. “They have a very rigid system in place,” Mehra said. “I think somewhere along that line it even hurts developers in the process.”