Imagining 3rd Party Defaults on iOS

Recently on the Vergecast Nilay Patel lamented that, increasingly, iOS was forcing him to use Apple’s services. I see his point. Siri is becoming more important and more prominent, and alternative AI’s, such as Google Now, are relegated to opening the app. This isn’t nearly as fast or available as saying “hey Siri” or holding the home button.

However, I see a different trend developing. I think Apple, as it develops iOS into a more professionally-capable computing platform, is moving towards a future where we have more customization options. Specifically, I think Apple is moving towards a future where we can set 3rd party apps, at least in some basic categories such as mail, calendars, and web browsers as our defaults. Finally, I think the last two years of iOS releases point us in this direction.

Third Party Keyboards

It doesn’t usually get discussed in this light, but we already have one category of app, keyboards, in which we can set a third party version as our system default, and we got it a year ago with iOS 8. At the time, many thought Apple would never implement third party keyboards, just as many surely now think that we’ll never be able to set other third party system defaults.

We even have an interface to designate a new default. It’s not very user friendly, but it doesn’t need to be. Setting new defaults is a power user feature. Apple is wise not to constantly present users with the option of an alternative keyboard, while still making it possible for power users who will be able to figure out how anyway. Apple’s interface for setting a new default keyboard may hint at what we might expect for future third party default app categories.


With iOS 8, Apple introduced Extensibility, allowing the aforementioned third party keyboards, document provider extensions, today view extensions, and perhaps most importantly, 3rd party share extensions. It is these share extensions that I think most demonstrate the possibility of 3rd party defaults.

Take the Gmail extension for instance:

Imagine if that Gmail share sheet (or the share sheet of any other email app) could pop up when you tapped an email address instead of the share sheet. It seems like the most important element of this already exists: the share sheets that present themselves when you tap the share extension buttion. I imagine Apple could provide an interface similar to what it already provides for 3rd party keyboards, but to designate which third party share sheets pop up when tapping on a specific kind of data type, such as an email address, date, or address.

The email and calendar default-chooser interface could go in:

Settings ➡️ Mail, Contacts, and Calendars

The default browser interface:

Settings ➡️ Safari

The document provider default-chooser:

Settings ➡️ iCloud

3D Touch

3D touch seems to be prime real estate for new default apps in a future version of iOS. Below, I 3D touched on an address in messages. However, one can imagine how a Google Maps preview might pop up here instead once the user has set it as the new maps default.

Similarly, imagine if the user could “pop” into Google Chrome.

Siri and Spotlight

With iOS 9, we saw another big change making 3rd party defaults seem more likely. That was making 3rd party defaults searchable in the no-longer-called-Spotlight Siri search box. If Apple were to allow for 3rd party apps to be set as a default, and thus allowing for those third party apps to take such a primary role in defining the user experience, app presence in Siri search was nearly a prerequisite.

To some degree, the user can already set a third party email app as the default here. All one would need to do is install a third party email app that supports the new spotlight search and disable in Spotlight’s settings. Now, at least in one corner of the operating system, the user would have a 3rd party app as the default.

The Future

I don’t think Apple would go so far as enabling the the same level of default customization that is currently available on Android. However, it is clear to me that the company has spent the past several years building the infrastructure to make such a change possible. Providing the user with this level of customization would go a long way towards providing professionals and power users the customization options they need, realizing the iOS platform as Apple’a true future of computing, truly post-PC.

Many of you may think that Apple would never do this; Apple prefers to not let users ruin their experience with their own poor choices. However, Apple has shown in the last two years of iOS that it is willing to do many things that that we once thought impossible in service of making iOS a truly capable computing platform. Consumers, professionals, and the enterprise would all be able to benefit significantly from such a change to iOS.

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