The Undead App Store
and the plight of new iOS users
Technically a cemetery can be thought of as a “walled garden” of sorts, a term used by critics of Apple to describe its strategy for the iOS app ecosystem. While the closed platform policy which this phrase describes has distinct benefits in the area of quality control and moderation, it has an unforeseen weakness with an adverse effect on newcomers to the platform: the lost functionality of ‘undead apps’.
While a cemetery may be serene and beautiful with its manicured landscapes, visitors are often jarred from this serenity by reminders of the eerie presence of human remains lying just beneath all the picturesque greenery. As a person who had owned an iPad mini for years now I found myself making occasional visits to the App Store, each time I would note how pristine if not wonderful its tightly curated sections appeared to be at first glance. I never really had an uncanny sense that something was missing until just this past month when I decided to finally upgrade to owning a new 2018 model iPad Pro. I had watched hundreds of reviews on YouTube, and carefully weighed financing options to ensure the investment I was about to make in the platform was a good one. However one thing I couldn’t quite glean from all the hours of video I had watched was exactly how invested these reviewers were within the iOS ecosystem itself, and the distinct advantage that investment had longitudinally over a few years of time.
Unlike the majority of these reviewers, I was primarily an Android user: my phone was and is still to this day a recently OEM’d first generation Google Pixel XL. As a software engineer my perspective centered around modes of engagement; considering that I whip out my phone way more often than my tablet, I wanted my phone to be something that was as open and extensible as possible. Inversely, because I spend less time with my tablet achieving specific creativity centered goals, I was okay with Apple’s strategy which limits the potential of its platform because I felt that made the overall experience feel more focused and refined. Yet considering I had just invested slightly over a thousand dollars of money I very foolishly did not yet have into this new device, I quickly found myself pushing the iPad Pro to its limits, struggling to make it do things that previous generations of iPad would have done with ease. What was preventing this magnificent slate of aluminum and glass from achieving its true potential? The absence of these aforementioned ‘undead apps’.
Apple had made headlines in late November with its decision to remove Tumblr’s app from the App Store for violating its policy on pornographic content, and while that move sent shockwaves through what remained of Tumblr’s administration and user base, when I activated my new iPad I found myself mysteriously unaffected. Everything that had transferred over from my iPad mini, including the Tumblr app, was present and useable even when the Tumblr app had no accessible page in the App Store. It turns out that when you’ve previously purchased and installed an iOS app from the App Store, it remains available to you regardless of wether or not it is still being sold; for Apple to delete an app from users devices apparently goes a step too far, even for them. While Tumblr did eventually undergo a catastrophic reform in order to get back into the App Store, their plight highlights a growing atrophy in available software that has quietly multiplied over the past six months.
Days before Tumblr had scheduled it’s new content policy to take affect another company, Epic Games of recent Fortnite fame, swiftly and suddenly announced plans to remove their hit iOS game Infinity Blade from the App Store. Within an hour of the announcement all three games in the franchise were no longer available for purchase, anyone who had yet to play it would have to head to a local Dave & Busters to try the radically different Arcade version. Just like that one piece of historically ground breaking software for the platform was gone in a flash, made available only to those who had played it before. Its easy to understand why developers might want to abandon their wares, especially considering the annual software and hardware deployments Apple makes, each sporting faster specs but with additional constraints.
The new iPad Pro is a perfect example of this, and may have in fact been the straw that broke the backs of these disappearing apps; the eleven inch model that I have rocks a wider aspect ratio than any iPad that has been sold before. Black borders appear at the edges of apps that have yet to be optimized, however they still function pretty well across the board. Apple has been known for implementing this kind of solution, using a very similar variety of screen cropping and scaling to let users play with iPhone apps on their larger devices. Yet this still doesn’t ameliorate the issue of lost functionality when an app is suddenly no longer available for purchase.
The most recent issue I encountered was when I wanted to very simply and elegantly send something from my device to a Raspberry Pi I was working on for a client. There were certain factors at play with that instance which made using the SFTP server that was built into the other apps I owned more cumbersome than I would have liked. After researching for a little while I found a bunch of glowing reviews for the capabilities of Transmit for iOS which came from Panic software, developers of the highly rated terminal emulator, Prompt 2. Transmit seemed to have everything I needed to do this one thing extremely well while having little else to become a distraction. It wasn’t perfect, as it supposedly had never been updated to support iOS 11’s Files system but for what I needed, it had just the right stuff.
So all that being said, what was the problem here? Well the issue for me was that all of these wondrous reviews and tutorials were coming from beyond the grave, so to speak. The app had disappeared from the App Store almost a year prior, while in a blog post the developer cited low profitability as the ultimate cause for its untimely demise. From that point on it seemed everywhere I looked I found signs of iOS’s former and presently fading glory. For example, I kept stumbling across videos for how to get the most out of the OS by installing DeskConnect’s WorkFlow app, which seemed to offer the functionality of Android’s Tasker within the constraints of an Apple device. Well, unbeknownst to me Apple had since acquired that developer and transformed WorkFlow into the more ubiquitous ShortCuts app. In most scenarios this kind of occurrence would be fantastic for both users and developers alike as it ensures tighter integration with the environment while providing more stable conditions for the developer as part of an internal team. Two years after that acquisition however, the top review for ShortCuts in the App Store cites a lack of critical functionality and design while comparing it to its predecessor.
Of course, Android doesn’t suffer from this kind of problem. Most apps are archived by third party sources because Google lets users install packaged apps from just about anywhere. While this carries certain negative connotations for the security of the platform, most versions of Android at least try to warn users about the dangers involved. Though Tim Cook has begun to steer iOS in the opposite direction towards very high grade methods of encryption and policies bolstering user privacy, newcomers to iOS are left to wonder if anything will be done to fill in the gaps left by the legacy of this operating system.
There has been some attempts to patch over these open graves by using Test Flight, Apple’s way of distributing beta apps to testers for quality assurance purposes. At best it has been used by developers to generate freely distributed beta keys, which can keep a piece of software that has been removed from the App Store available elsewhere for limited windows of time. At worst, like in the case of the Steam Link app, those keys are only given to a handful of journalists, while over the course of about six months no real progress has been made towards getting the app re-listed somewhere within the walled garden.
Perhaps a specifically delineated App Mausoleum of sorts is exactly what Apple needs to solve this problem. If they had some way of making legacy apps available even just for testing purposes there wouldn’t be such a growing discrepancy between existing iOS users who’ve been able to squander these titles and newcomers who will have to go without having ever tried them. Until that happens, the App Store will remain in this liminal space between our world and the next, encased by a beautiful and ornate wrought iron fence.