iOS: The Multi-App Conundrum

| Editorial

We have all downloaded too many apps for our iOS devices, resulting in pages of folders filled with little icons that allow us to simply function when on the go. This compulsive behavior got me thinking: Why do we use multiple apps on iOS to perform the same functions that a single application on the Mac can achieve?

My aim is not to dissuade you from using the iOS ecosystem, but rather to encourage you to take a deeper look at your own workflow and your associated productivity. Although, I do acknowledge that there will always likely be a subset of users for which iOS devices will not be appropriate for constructive workflows.

For months I have been refining my own iOS workflow. Even when my iMac has been available, I have chosen to use my iPad mini as my main productivity tool. This culminated last month when I took a week long vacation. I had to make a difficult decision as I needed to keep working. Do I purchase a MacBook Air, or rely solely on the iPad mini and iPhone 4?

I went with the latter. After all, I am the writer that penned "iPad mini: It’s a Productivity Tool, Too."

The good news is I was able to successfully continue working during the holiday, despite being without a Mac. There is no denying some tasks, across multiple apps, could have been streamlined more successfully with the Mac and in many cases a single application.

Let's take a look at why multiple apps were more of a hindrance than a single Mac app for my personal workflow.

I'm signed up with four social networks, that include Twitter, Facebook, Google+, and App.net. Whilst all have their positive and negative points, different people use the different networks for various reasons. As a writer and podcaster, I need to be able to easily and quickly promote my creative content whilst still being able to receive constructive criticism from my readers and subscribers on any of these networks.

The big plus for all these social networks is that their websites generally have a very solid user experience in an application such as Safari for the Mac. I can easily have four tabs open in a single Safari window and jump seamlessly between them.

Moving across to the iOS version of Safari, I am left with a disappointing experience when performing the same functions. Despite tabbed browsing being available in Safari for iOS, the mobile versions of these websites are far from polished, and selecting the full site option is an exercise in how well Safari for iOS can zoom a site. Either approach is so limited that your only alternative for a good user experience is to obtain additional apps such as Tweetbot, Facebook, Google+, and Netbot.

One major disappointment is there is no single app to rule them all. At the very least Tweetbot and Netbot could be combined in a single app, as they are developed by the same team at Tapbots. Unfortunately, Twitter’s API (section 6a Timeline Integrity) restricts this functionality.

If more integration was present, I may even use App.net more frequently.

Antisocial Social Networking Apps

Google+ has recently followed Facebook’s example by dividing their app into two separate apps. In fairness to Facebook, the ability to message from within their main app is still available. Previously, you could post and have a G+ Hangout in the one app. Now hangouts have been stripped from the original app, and users are required to download the separate hangouts app if they wish to use this functionality.

So who do we blame for our antisocial, social networking apps? Is it the website developers, app developers, Apple developers, or the consumer?

Surely, it can't be the consumer?

Perhaps it is! With 50 billion app downloads on iOS, being announced this last month, the quote "there is an app for that" rings alarm bells. Is our app addiction the reason why mobile website development is generally presenting sub standard results?

If we want an app instead, then clearly there is little to no point in developing an appealing mobile website experience. Or could Safari for iOS just be underpowered for posting text based messages and compromising photographs?

In many ways Safari for iOS is underpowered. Sites will often reload without warning, causing a slowdown in performance or the need to log back into a specific site.  This is most noticeable when you have multiple tabs open within the browser. The simple fact is that each iOS device has a limited amount of RAM, and once it exceeds its allocation, it will clear information from other open tabs in order to successful launch new tabs.

With this in mind imagine trying to be productive within web hosting platforms such as WordPress or SquareSpace. Both are sadly unusable, for real work, within Safari for iOS. Whilst you wouldn't want to build a site using iOS, it would be nice to have the same level of control that is available via the desktop browser for updating, posting, and making changes to the settings and preferences.

As I write for multiple sites, employing a number of different WordPress and SquareSpace builds, I now need to employ the use of three different apps to do what could be done in Safari for the Mac. Right now, WordPress, SquareSpace, and Blogsy are my apps of choice to post, reply to comments, and check statistics.

The features available in each app are still limited when compared to using the complete back end on the Mac, via Safari. Blogsy is leading the way for compatibility with multiple sites and the official WordPress app is growing in strength as each new addition is released.

Then there is SquareSpace. Oh, how I wish they would put more development into that orphaned app. Whilst Blogsy can post to SquareSpace, it has not been without problems. Recently, SquareSpace made changes to the way they host users content. As a result, users were unable to post, via Blogsy, to SquareSpace for over a week. In-fact, it took the Blogsy support team to email SquareSpace support before the relative information became available.

Another major problem exists when posting articles to your website from your iOS device. How to add all those pretty pictures? If you use multimedia video or audio files, you are completely out of luck in your wish to add them to your site via the iOS interface.

This is one area where I wish Apple had a traditional file structure available for users of iOS. It doesn't need to be anywhere as complex as the Mac version, but it would save countless steps, via several apps, to successfully annotate, edit, save, and upload media.

On the Mac, adding media to your site is as simple as dragging and dropping your graphic into the Add Media area of your website from the Finder. On iOS it is a drastically different story. The graphic needs to at least be in your Camera Roll before it can be added to your article, in your preferred app.

Of course, this results in Photo Stream being inundated with graphics that you don't want in there. It is a logistical nightmare that hopefully will resolve itself in later versions of iOS. It would be nice to use either Box or Dropbox as they have file structures. Whilst these cloud storage services do offer a little more flexibility, their true usefulness is not yet realized or supported by all apps.

Speaking of photographs, you can have cards printed from iOS, but that involves using the separate Cards app. Why isn't this functionality built into the iOS version of iPhoto? Why do we need multiple apps on iOS to do what a single application does on the Mac?

It is simply infuriating!

There is no denying how popular apps and the associated products are, but how many of these 50 billion downloads can be attributed to bloatware and the need to download two or three apps to do the work that one application could achieve on the Mac?

All of this reminds me of the dark years as an Apple user. Remember, before Steve Jobs returned to the helm and became our savior. At that point in time Windows users would always tout how many applications they had available to them. The argument was always used to justify how much better their platform was. The fact that 90 percent, or more, of the applications for Windows were lacking in quality didn't matter.

I dare say iOS is the new Windows in that sense: A massive App Store with only a small percentage of stellar apps.

Many of you may argue that due to the touch based interface, this limits what can be done with apps and it is a totally different system, hence it can not be compared. I would respectfully disagree with that opinion. I have used some amazingly detailed and powerful apps on my iOS devices that prove dedication to interesting ideas and concepts can produce an app that is extraordinarily powerful on such a portable device.

If Apple would further loosen the strings that restrict developers, I’m confident that we would see some mind blowing functionality.

With WWDC fast approaching, we will likely be shown iOS version 7. My sincerest hope is that Apple addresses the shortcomings, of iOS, rather than simply adding new features. A maintenance update, similar to that of OS X Snow Leopard, would be perfect.

In conclusion, ask yourself, are you really as productive on iOS as you think you are? Or are the steps involved, via multiple apps, simply not worth the trouble?

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Comments

Jesse Parrott

What a great article! I share your opinion about the fact that iOS is prone to leading me to use too many apps. I am a web developer and have been working on a website that does all functions that a full desktop browser can do within Safari in iOS and it is not as hard as it sounds. My (hobby) website http://www.iosforums.org implements some of the code I am working on. As a developer, I am trying to create the same experience on iOS as I do on my Mac so I have written my website in HTML5 (for the most part) and it comes close. I do wish that Apple built in a shared file system on iOS. It would make development of mobile websites similar to desktop websites. I hope iOS becomes more like the Mac and less like old school Windows.

Khürt Williams

“I dare say iOS is the new Windows in that sense: A massive App Store with only a small percentage of stellar apps.”

Perhaps.

“If Apple would further loosen the strings that restrict developers, I’m confident that we would see some mind blowing functionality.”

What about iOS is restricting developers?

You want great web apps?  Tell the developers to use HTML 5.  Apple has been doing that for years.  I don’t see how an iOS change would help this.

The problems with Hangouts and Facebook Message etc is one of their own making.  I’m not sure how some iOS change would fix that issue.

The Netbot and Tweetbot issue.  No iOS update will fix that.

In fact, with the exception of the file system suggestion I see NOTHING in this article that Apple could address with an iOS “update”.  The problems are all the result of poor decisions by app developers AND users.

Mark Greentree

Jesse Parrott: Thanks for taking the time to comment on my article. It’s good to know I’m not alone in my thoughts.

Mark Greentree

Khürt Williams: Thanks for taking the time to comment on my article.

I feel you have misunderstood the point I was trying to make throughout, although I appreciate your opinions.

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