(Popping back in briefly: Nicola will be back again with a new essay on Thursday.)
I have a heavy iOS habit. And (you're not going to be surprised by this) I also have a couple of Android devices. My first real smartphone, back in 2003, was a Palm Treo 600; I switched to the iPhone 3G after Palm jumped down the rabbit hole in 2008. So I have a lot of legacy apps that run on mobile devices, and I thought I'd indulge in a little rant about the most annoying facets of the app store lifestyle.
Let's leave aside the issue of the creeping commoditization of software and the fact that these walled gardens are driving us to rent, rather than own, some of our most intimate moments. Smartphones are the third stage of the personal computer revolution, taking personal computing into the pockets of billions of people who don't even know they're carrying around sophisticated network-connected supercomputers with online access to the sum total of human knowledge (and in turn accessible online to the sum total of human computer criminals).
The fact is, we're increasingly coming to depend on these pocket wonders to keep us in touch with our friends, locate us when we're lost, to do business, to schedule our lives. And it's probably necessary for them to be locked down and centrally provisioned, because most of the folks who own them don't have the faintest clue about network security and, more importantly, don't have the time or energy or brain cells to learn how to defend themselves. This brings us to the app store model for curating software configuration: the Google Play store on Android, the iTunes Store on Apple devices, and various half-assed attempts at building proprietary company stores from Kindle, Nook, Windows Mobile, Samsung, and any other company who think they can hold their users to ransom.
For most mobile apps I use iOS. This is not an accident. Firstly, walled gardens may be prisons, but the bigger they are the less you notice the walls: also, Apple has always had a focus on design aesthetics that the rest of the CE industry has never understood. Simply put, the best iOS apps are pretty, and if I'm going to be interacting with a device from dawn 'til dusk I do not want it to offend my eyes every time I look at it. The flipside is that the Android ecosystem has, until iOS 8 ships, been more flexible: there are things Apple simply won't allow in their store, and if you want them you're going to have to look outside the walls.
But now for my main gripe. I've been using iOS devices since the iPhone 3G (not the 3GS), and I have to say that the App Store has usability flaws that are becoming crippling.
I'm not going to gripe about it being part of iTunes. iTunes has morphed from a CD-ripping and MP3 playing tool in 2000 into Apple's content and media store. But the iTunes app store offers virtually zero library management and curation tools.
Yes, you can view your app purchases by platform (iPhone/iPod Touch, or iPad, or Universal) and you can check for updates. But most of the development effort seems to go into how to sell you new apps, not manage the ones you've got. So my app library is slowly sinking under a pile of ...
* Abandonware. Many apps simply aren't updated. The developer gave up on them (often due to paltry revenue) with the result that they're rotting and no longer work once iOS retires one framework too many.
* Take-overware. Some apps are abandoned because the developer sold out to another company who wanted them for the staff, not the product. Big visible examples of this are QuickOffice (once a stand-alone office suite for phones, it's now being rolled into Google Drive as a bunch of editing tools) and Stanza (once the best ePub ebook reader on iOS; then Amazon bought the company for their ebook development expertise and left the apps to rot). Documents to Go may be joining QuickOffice soon—the developers were bought out by Blackberry, and although it's still occasionally updated the update tempo has slowed right down. In fact, since Apple focussed so intently on building out the iWork suite as a cloud-based cross-platform tool, most of the rival cross-platform office suites have withered on the vine, aside from Microsoft Office (perched lonely like a Microsoftian colonial outpost in the hinterlands of iPad-land, requiring an Office365 subscription to work). There are plenty of text editors, and a couple of fine document processors (Textilus, I'm looking at you) and some day soon Scrivener is promised on iOS. But I'm a bit peeved that over the years products I've spent good money for have been pulled right out from under my fingers and shut down without so much as a by-your-leave.
* Forced upgrade-ware. This is an increasing problem. Time was when software was expensive and came in boxes and you expected a new version every year or three, for which you would pay. Then the app store model cut the feet out from under the expensive boxed software industry. Now, if you want powerful software, it takes a lot of effort to make the stuff. So it's no surprise that some of the better apps in the app store cost rather more than the £0.99 norm—OmniOutliner, for example, is US $29.99. GoodReader, the best PDF reader/annotator I've found for iOS, is $6.99. These apps aren't cheap and maintaining them costs money, and it shows. But because the Apple app store only allows for a one-off purchase, the developers eventually see sales tapering off. So they run on forced obsolescence. Support and upgrades for an old version stops, and a new one comes along that you have to buy afresh—OmniOutliner 2, or GoodReader 4. The trouble is, the old version sticks around as a zombie in your iTunes library: I'm now looking at about three or four versions of Marvin, my ebook reader of choice, three versions of GoodReader and two of OmniOutliner. All of which insist on residing on any Mac I have registered with my Apple ID, sucking up valuable space.
* Get-out-of-my-face-ware: I just saw an app update today, for the Croatia Travel Guide I bought a couple of years ago when I visited Croatia. I am glad it is still being updated but I am less than charmed to be bugged about it, because I will not need it until the next time I visit Croatia, and while Croatia is charming this isn't likely to happen in the next couple of years. There is a lot of stuff like this in my iTunes library—cruft downloaded once out of curiousity and never touched since (many games, for example), or stuff used once but no longer of interest, or stuff purchased and immediately regretted because it didn't do what I needed. Many SF conventions publish their program guides as apps, so I've got about half a dozen bespoke apps for conventions long past gathering dust in my filesystem: then a couple experimented with commercial conference guide packages (which offered free entry-level versions of their software) until those products priced themselves out of the fan-run convention market. And they still keep updating on me.
* Excessively-updated-ware: I still have my old iPhone 3G. It sits on a stand on my bedside table, sans SIM card, as an alarm clock. (I can reach out in the night and hit the button to see what time it is without being kept awake in-between by a glowing display.) It doesn't update to anything more recent than some version of iOS 4. There are apps on it that claim to have updates pending ... but they won't install or run on it.
I have about 33Gb of apps in my iTunes library, on each of the three SSD-based Macs I use and have registered to that account. I estimate that at least 10Gb of these apps are unwanted. Some of these apps are big—games, mostly, clocking in at over 1Gb each. But there are 350 .ipa installer packages, the oldest date to 2008, and a bunch of them are basically trash that I can't delete without the store persistently trying to make me re-download them.
Apple, the iTunes app library is broken from the point of view of anyone who uses it intensively over a period of years. But I think you can probably fix it. Here are some features that I think would make life easier for people like me (of whom I believe there are some millions):
* I want to be able to create my own lists and "playlists" of apps, link them to folders ("all apps in this list go in such-and-such a folder") and tag these for downloading/synching on specific devices ("a folder containing playlist named 'Office apps' goes onto all iPads except iPad 1 but not iPhones or iPod Touches").
* I want to be able to lock some apps to never update, regardless of what the developer thinks. Or to retain a given old version for one specific iOS device that can't update—an iPhone 3G, or an iPad 1, for example. ("This app is needed in an iOS 4 compatible flavour for my old phone, and in the latest available version for every other device.") You don't need to support the old devices: just don't wreck my ability to restore them by trashing the last version of an app to run on them.
* I'd like to be able to tag apps for updating based on priority. Sometimes I'm on the road or on a train or in a hotel with limited wifi, or roaming on 3G data. When that happens, I want to update the apps that are important to me first. For example, security patches for DropBox or Pages are always going to be more important than some random game that can wait until I get home from a business trip. And I want my devices to know this so that I can leave the process of downloading app updates on automatic.
* I want to be able to "un-buy" an app. Not necessarily to be given a refund, but just to delete the waste of money, brains and disk space from my library forever so I'm never bugged to update it again and it doesn't spawn endless useless space-consuming copies across every Mac I own.
* I want to be able to link two apps so that iTunes knows that one of them supersedes the other. That way I wouldn't "un-buy" GoodReader 3, but iTunes would nevertheless stop insisting that I install it or update it, because it would be flagged as superseded-by GoodReader 4.
* Better still, Apple should offer developers the option of in-app purchases for updates. Limit it to no more than once per year, to prevent a forced-upgrade treadmill, and allow users to decline to update—but at least stop spamming our iTunes libraries with never versions of apps that relegate old versions to the state of abandonware.
* I want to be able to create views of my iTunes app library that hide some apps without deleting them from the database. (That "playlist" feature? Give me a special playlist called "hidden". Sort of like the undeleted items in the trash can. I can dive in and rummage for something if I find a pressing need for it, but otherwise it shouldn't clutter up my view of my iOS lifestyle.)
Final note: this is a gripe list for the Apple iTunes app store for iOS. However, you can come up with a near-identical list for the Google Play store. I'm pretty sure a similar but disjoint set of gripes exist for the Windows Mobile app store. It's an inevitable consequence of the app-ification of our lifestyles. App stores were designed for cheap, simple devices. But iPads and big Android tablets and Surface RT tablets aren't simple devices: they're about 80% of a personal computer, and within the next 2-3 years they will, to all intents and purposes, be the curated personal computing platform of choice for most people.
Over to you folks. What do you acutely feel the lack of in these curated app collections?