Anatomy Of A Great App

This post follows on from Anatomy Of A Great iOS App.

That post was only written in 2019 but such a lot has changed in the Apple ecosystem that I think it worth revisiting. A hint at what’s changed is that the title of this post doesn’t contain the word “iOS” anymore.

(I can’t insert the word “Apple” into the title as the vast majority of the relevant apps aren’t made by Apple.)

As with that post, I don’t consider this one to be a complete treatment of what the ideal app would do. Just some pointers to the most important things. (And important is highly subjective, particularly as I consider myself a power user.)

To reprise a list in that post, with some updates, there are obvious personal biases here:

  • Automation is still important to me.
  • I have most of the Apple ecosystem ā€“ and now I have 3 HomePod speakers, scattered about the house.
  • I really want good quality apps ā€“ and I am willing and able to pay for them. (and, as in the case of OmniFocus 4, risk all by beta’ing them.) šŸ™‚

Other themes are emerging:

  • Apps should be cross platform – where possible.
  • Mac Apps should support Apple Silicon.
  • Terms and conditions should be helpful.

All of the above are about user experience and value. So let’s take them one at a time.

Cross Platform

The tools and techniques increasingly support writing for all platforms with a single code base. Maybe with a small amount of platform-specific code.

From a vendor point of view this increases their market. You might say the Mac market, for instance, is small compared to the iPhone or Windows market. But only a small portion of iPhone users are into paying for apps, at least productivity apps. So the Mac market is a substantial proportion of that sub-market – and so probably worth catering for.

From a user point or view there are benefits, too: Portability of data and application experience are important. For example, I’m composing this blog post on an iPhone (in interestitial moments), on my iPad with a Magic Keyboard, and on Mac. The app I’m using is the very excellent Drafts – which has common automation across all platforms. (I might’ve started this post by dictating to my Apple Watch – using Drafts – but I didn’t.)

My task manager, OmniFocus, has similar cross-platform portability of data, automation, and (in the latest beta) experience. That again makes it attractive to me.

Both the mind mapping tools I use – MindNode and iThoughts – are cross platform.

Note: I don’t want all the platforms to merge – as there are use cases and capabilities unique to each, such as Apple Pencil. Or Apple Watch.

Apple Silicon

It’s important to note that Apple Silicon has the same programming model – at the machine code / assembler level – as iPhones and iPads have always had. Indeed the iPad I’m typing this on has the same M1 processor as the first Apple Silicon Macs. (It’s all based on ARM – which I enjoyed programming in assembler for in the late 1980’s.)

Building for Apple Silicon yields tremendous speed and energy efficiency advantages – which the consumer would greatly appreciate. It also makes it easier to build cross-platform apps.

While applications that are built for Intel can run using Rosetta 2, that really isn’t going to delight users. Apps really should be native for the best performance – and why would you want anything else?

Terms And Conditions Apply

As with z/OS software, the model for paying for software has evolved.

There are a couple of things I rather like:

  • Family Sharing
  • Universal Licencing

By the way, it seems to me to be perfectly OK to use free apps in perpetuity – but the developer generally has to be paid somehow. So expect to see adverts. I view free versions as tasters for paid versions, rather than tolerating adverts.

Family sharing allows members of your family (as defined to Apple) to share apps, iCloud storage, etc. That includes in-app purchases. But the app has to enable it. It’s an economic decision but it does make an app much more attractive – if you have a “family” that actually wants to use it. (I have a family but the “actually wants to use it” bit is lacking.)

Universal Licencing is more of a developer-by-developer (or app-by-app) thing to enable. It’s attractive to me to have a licence that covers an app from Watch OS, through iOS and iPad OS, all the way to Mac OS. It means I can experiment with where to run something.

I would couple both the above licencing schemes to Subscriptions – where you pay monthly or annually for the licence. Some people dislike subscriptions but I’m OK with them – as I know the developer needs to be paid somehow. The link is that I won’t rely on apps that either aren’t developed or, more seriously, where the developer isn’t sustainable. So to recommend an app to a family member it has to meet that criterion. Likewise to bother using it on all the relevant platforms.

Conclusion

One controversial point is whether the apps have to be Native. So, many people don’t like apps built with Electron (a cross-platform framework that doesn’t work on iOS or iPad OS or (probably) Android). To me, it’s important how good an app is more than what it’s built with – though the two are related. And “good” includes such things as not being memory hogs, supporting Shortcuts and / or AppleScript, and supporting standard key combinations.

Mentioning Shortcuts in the previous paragraph, I would note the arrival of Shortcuts on Mac in Monterey. I’ve used this – as highlighted in Instant Presentations?. While functional, the app itself is awkward to use on Mac – so I recommend composing on iOS or iPad OS to the extent possible. With iCloud sync’ing the resulting shortcut should transfer to Mac. But even on iOS and iPad OS the Shortcuts experience is currently (November 2021) buggy. I expect it to improve.

One final thought: Running through this post and the previously-referenced one is a theme: The thoughtful adoption of new features. Examples include:

  • Shortcuts – if automation is relevant.
  • SharePlay – if the idea of sharing over FaceTime is meaningful.

Not to mention Safari Extensions and Widgets.

The words “relevant” and “meaningful” being operative here. It’s not up to me as a user to assess relevance or meaningfulness – but it is up to users to use their ingenuity when adopting apps.

And when I say “thoughtful adoption” that applies to users as well. There are many new capabilities in modern releases of iOS , iPad OS, and Mac OS. I would single out two very recent ones:

  • Live text – which recognises text in photographs and lets you do something useful with it. I’ve found this to work very well.
  • Quick Notes – though the target being Apple Notes is less useful to me. (I’m approximating it with automation for capture to Drafts.)

So I encourage users to explore new operating system releases, rather than just bemoaning the need to upgrade.

Published by Martin Packer

I'm a mainframe performance guy and have been for the past 35 years. But I play with lots of other technologies as well.

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