Getting Back into Forward Motion: Apple’s Neglect of its First-Party Apps

Apple’s own apps used to be a benchmark for developers to aspire to, but they’ve stagnated. What’s gone wrong?

Apple invented the mobile app. While applications existed on desktop operating systems for decades prior to the birth of smartphones, it was Apple who pioneered apps designed specifically for mobile screens and touch input.

On iOS, and prior its Mac operating system, Apple used to lead the way. Its apps were always beautifully designed and packed with features that empowered users in multitudes of ways. But at some point, Apple stopped innovating and in some cases, even removed helpful functionality.

At one point, third-party app developers would aspire to the level of fit and finish, intuition and depth of functionality Apple’s own apps provided its users. But these days, Apple’s own offerings can feel unfinished, and even be frustrating to the user.

It’s not entirely clear when this happened, or why. It might be that Apple have focused far more heavily on services like iCloud, or focused its engineering efforts on feature parity between iOS and Mac, to the extent of a loss of features. Maybe the abolition of skeumorphism from iOS 7 and OS X Yosemite onwards contributed. Or perhaps Apple wanted to focus on core OS features over the app offerings.

Whatever the reason, it’s a true shame that Apple’s first party apps have been neglected or even regressed in quality. I’ve gone through most of them and identified where I think they’re lacking and how they could improve in my opinion.


Safari

Apple’s browser is a pretty decent experience on both its platforms. But there are still a few niggles for me on iOS especially.

It’s a shame Apple don’t offer a built in web inspector or development tools it has on the Mac. Things like View Source or Inspect Element. Things like the viewport tool which lets you see a website on different device resolutions. Things like Request Desktop Site actually circumventing media queries and showing the site as it appears on the desktop. The option to show Favicons on Mac is conspicuous in its absence.

From a UI standpoint, at least on iPhone, the address bar should be at the bottom of the screen. Maps has introduced this and it’s far more logical with screen sizes almost double what they were when the iPhone was introduced.

Overall, Safari’s pretty good. The upcoming changes in macOS High Sierra are pretty decent when it comes to autoplaying video options amongst other things. And Content Blockers on iOS are fab. It would just be nice to see a few refinements on iOS to bring it up to full parity with its Mac counterpart.

Calculator

Not much to say about Calculator other than where is the iPad version? Apple, people need a calculator just as much on an iPad as an iPhone, and using Spotlight isn’t exactly a joy. It’s a minor thing, but it’s something that shouldn’t be overlooked.

Calendar

Whatever happened to the beauty and joy of Apple’s calendaring? iCal used to be so lovely to use on the Mac, but now the UI on both Mac and iOS is just atrociously bland and lifeless.

Apps like Fantastical and Timepage offer beautiful UIs with fluid and intuitive navigation. Fantastical’s date scrubber is an example of superb UI work which makes it far easier to move back and forth through time and look at your events. Natural language input is also a great experience. Weather integration in Timepage is really enjoyable, too.

For me the Calendar experience needs some new features and UI flourishes. On iPad and Mac, it would be nice for a real re-think of the UI which uses more of the screen space.

FaceTime

FaceTime works well enough but can we please finally get group call support? This would be a really fun experience if architected correctly and its omission in this day and age is both baffling and irritating.

iBooks

I like iBooks, especially on iPad. Highlighting with the Apple Pencil is great. But why is there such a poor representation of your progress with books from the bookshelf? I have no idea how far through I am in the books I’m reading.

Why can’t you mark books as read or unread, or hide them when read? Why can’t you view or search all your highlights in a more enjoyable fashion? It’s the little things, Apple…

Mail

Using email is something most of us do. But there are some things still missing, and off the top of my head the most notable one is Snooze. Mail contains absolutely no way to triage your messages by deferring them until later. It’s not fun trying to get to Inbox Zero if you prefer to defer things until they’re relevant.

Maps

The latest design of Maps is pretty good but I have found myself quite frustrated when using walking directions. It seems to lag, and sometimes it’s really not clear what direction you’re going in and hard to activate the compass.

I know Apple have struggled a bit with Maps and are working hard on it, but improvements to the UI and usability of it would go a long way.

News

If Apple aren’t going to launch News for Mac, it seems a half-baked effort. Furthermore, it’s quite a shit experience with providers who aren’t supporting the Apple News format properly. It’d be nice to filter out any provider that doesn’t offer the full experience.

Notes

While Notes is much improved lately, especially in iOS 11, it lacks some functionality which would make it more enjoyable. Nested folders, for example? And let’s talk about the ink for the handwritten notes. That pen is so ugly it hurts.

With no support for the pressure of the Apple Pencil and no control over the pen thickness, writing handwritten notes in it isn’t as fun as in tons of third-party notes app. The addition of different paper styles is a start, but there’s more to do. Step on it, Apple!

Reminders

It’s a shame Reminders is such cack. The interface is incredibly simple and really rather ugly in my opinion. Compare it to apps like 2Do, Todoist and the absolutely exemplary Things, and it’s a truly half-baked solution for GTD.

With Reminders it feels like Apple just don’t care. It’s time to add a lot of features and visual flourish to make it actually worth using for getting things done.

Weather

Why is there no Weather app for iPad? The widget is nice but seriously, Apple? That is all.

Camera/Photos

Pretty good, in my view, however there is room for improvement still. I’d like to be able to set a default aspect ratio (say 16x9). I’d like a wider selection of filters, or the ability to make my own filters. I’d like a Clarity or Structure editing tool.

iTunes/Music

Well it’s always best to save the worst til last, right? Where to begin with iTunes? Apple’s infamous music player, which made its debut in 2001 (16 and a half years ago!) was once an app which lead the way.

On Mac, you’d be able to see hints at new UI conventions in iTunes releases. I remember clearly the UI changes that came along once in an iTunes update (to scrollbars and other UI elements) which lead to a rather exciting rumour about Apple developing a new Mac UI, codenamed Marble, for its Snow Leopard release. Apple’s Cover Flow interface was utterly stunning to use, if a little superfluous. It used to be a really great app in terms of UI.

As the app grew and features like iTunes Extras, Movies and TV Shows were added, it grew clunkier and clunkier. The launch of Apple Music marked the nadir of iTunes, it having become a confusing monolith. Its file size spiralling out of control, its interface hard to navigate, it became Apple’s biggest piece of bloatware.

Over on iOS, Apple opted for separate apps for all that iTunes provided on the Mac. Things like Videos, Podcasts and more lived in their own apps, meaning the Music app focused on just that: playing music. But Apple’s Music app on iOS has seen (probably) the most changes of any first-party app on the platform.

In iOS 10 Apple redesigned the Music experience on iOS with huge fonts, white everywhere replacing the adaptive colour in the previous version, and new navigation. It’s stayed this way in iOS 11, but Apple still haven’t nailed the experience visually or in terms of functionality.

On iOS, it’s not possible to sort playlists. I have a Chill playlist with over 400 songs in it, for example, and add new songs regularly. When using iOS, I have to manually move each new song all the way to the top of the playlist, because there’s no way to sort it in descending order. This sucks.

And Smart Playlists, a feature iTunes has had for 15 years, are not possible on iOS. Play counts? Don’t count on it. Star ratings? Hidden. Put simply, it lacks any sort of power that iTunes has. And it looks like Apple just don’t care as it focuses on Apple Music (which still can’t seem to compete with Spotify on things like its equivalents to Discover Weekly). Intrusive overlays when adding songs to the queue or a playlist remain. There’s no crossfade support which iTunes has had for time immemorial. The EQ settings are basic and limited.

It’s not much better these days on the Mac, either. iTunes is a bloated mess. Apple Music has been tacked onto the outdated iTunes interface. Search isn’t unified between your library and the Apple Music library. Dragging and dropping from Apple Music to your playlists is not possible (it is on Spotify). Or selecting multiple tracks in Apple Music (or Music at all on iOS). You can’t start music on your Mac and carry on listening on your phone. It is all, to put it bluntly, a fucking mess.

Of all of the problems Apple have with apps, iTunes and Music represent the worst. So what should they do? Well, I know what I would do — and it should have been done a long time ago. Kill iTunes. It is absolutely time now. The Mac app should be discontinued and replaced with a new Music app, rewritten from the ground up. Its other functionality should be moved into new apps — so Videos (or TV), Podcasts, and so on. Audiobooks should move into the iBooks app. The iTunes Store should be discontinued, with the stores being available in the relevant app (like the iBookstore is in iBooks). And device management should be moved into a new Devices app, which handles syncing media to your devices.

Across iOS and Mac, Music should be overhauled again with power in mind. I’m talking Smart Playlists on both platforms. I’m talking multiple selection of music, both in your library and Apple Music views. I’m talking Playlist sorting, such as by date added in either ascending or descending order or by artist or track name or… whatever I want, kindly. I’m talking a final solution to stars and ‘hearts’ which actually means something and is accessible. I’m talking seamlessly transitioning from playback on one device to another. I’m talking customisable view options on iOS. I’m talking drag and drop on Mac and iPad from Apple Music views to your library.

Just sort it out Apple. People love music and you’ve made a dog’s dinner of it all.


In Summary

This is a rambling post and I apologise for that. I also thank anyone who got to the end. I suppose it’s a little ranty but it upsets me Apple are dumbing down their apps, sometimes making them worse, and resting on their laurels with others.

Whether it’s in terms of UI, functionality, or parity across platforms, Apple has work to do. The biggest mess is Music, but other first-party apps need to be improved and made more enjoyable and powerful. It’s all very well advocating simplicity, but it’s laziness not to find ways through thoughtful UI of simplicity masking real power.

Here’s hoping there are plans afoot to launch a major software offensive. Apple’s products are so beautiful and its services tie them together so well — the final piece of the jigsaw is the improvement and unification of its first-party apps.

Come on Apple, lead the way again!