Tom Goodwin On The Post App World

19 October 2015

Tom Goodwin:

How is it that in 2015 we need to decide how to communicate and then search for the person? Or try to remember what platform they are on before opening an app.

This is clearly aligned to the interest of the app makers, but not users. Clearly we need some sort of aggregation layer, where we decide who we want to speak to, then decide the how after. The Microsoft Windows phone had a People Hub to do just this, communication arranged around people with the pipes where they belong, as a background.

I don’t agree with the negative sentiment Goodwin is portraying here. Distinct apps offer uniqueness and differentiation and additional specialised features that a conglomerate generic UI can’t provide by definition. Shuffling between apps on a Home Screen could be seen as annoying but combining them doesn’t really give you any less frustration, it just moves the complexity to somewhere else in the chain.

If you ditch the app model and instead centralise everything into one view, that view (by nature) has to become cluttered and complex. Then you have to split stuff up, either with tabs or some navigation hierarchy at which point you are basically making independent apps anyway.

A lot of it comes down to how you think about interacting with a computer. If you want to send an email with an attachment, there are typically two ways of going about this. You could find the file to send and then share it via email, or you could start an email and add an attachment. One of these correlates closely to an app model, the second one to be precise. Open Mail, make a message.

With the app metaphor, there’s a clear sense of ownership. These things belong here. To start a thing, go here. Having an integrated system just jumbles that up, confuses the workflow for anyone who doesn’t follow this mental process. And here’s the crutch: everything I’ve seen has shown me that this is what more people prefer.

It sucks that messaging apps now have to take up multiple rows on the Home Screen to connect with your friends. However, that creates a simpler experience once you enter those apps. Swapping between apps is not a chore. People love it. It’s like going to a shopping centre: each clothes shop is sandboxed into its own location but each has their own personality and their own presentations.

App developers love the freedom of apps too. It’s a blank canvas that can fill the whole display. Developers get to do whatever they want in their own sandbox. They can customise and specialise their content display at will. Moreover, the boundaries are clearly defined for the user, so they can follow who controls what is being shown on the screen at any particular moment. Some geeks may feel constrained by the encapsulation of software but the mainstream public laps it up. It makes it easier to manage.

Where appropriate, you can have apps that are aggregators. These already exist and fit cleanly alongside single-purpose software. Contacts is a good example. You don’t need to check many different apps to see all of your friends, you can just add multiple accounts to Contacts. It’s not ugly or a weird edge-case, it’s just another icon to tap on.

Messaging apps could be like this too if it wasn’t for business execs stopping integration by not using standard protocols or releasing APIs. This isn’t really a con of the app design though but a fact of nature for everything. Business people would stunt this kind of integration no matter how the UI is formulated.

Goodwin derisively cites Tim Cook (‘The future of TV is apps’) highlighting the fragmented mess of video apps on his iPad. The whole point of the new Apple TV is universal search, which solves the fragmentation issue of finding a particular TV show without fiddling checking every possible service. This is still an app model, though. When the search finds the item, it takes you to the app. The Apple TV home screen is still a grid of apps. The same is true for the enhanced Spotlight on iOS 9. Not ditching the app model by any means, it patches in additional convenience in places where it breaks down.