Going [back to] Native
Slowly but surely, Apple is reclaiming real estate on my home screen.

With the introduction of iCloud syncing between devices, my iOS home screens have become an identity of sorts. As the devices themselves have evolved and shifted in shape over defined periods – usually two year increments for myself – the home screen and it’s arrangement of applications is more organic. Each persons home screen is unique in it’s logic and arrangement. Often Apple fans & followers are mocked for their lack of originality – all iPhones look the same as each other and each increment look all but indistinguishable from the last. But as soon as the screen comes to life, the personality of the user takes over. I have used an iPhone for just under a decade but if I pick up another iPhone that’s not my own; I am lost, at least for a moment whilst I orientate myself to the layout of even stock apps, let alone new and unfamiliar ones. Equally, what is a clear and crafted system on my phone is as equally baffling to someone else.

So space in this personal world comes at a premium. Maybe more so than others, but I consider each placement of my applications. I recognise that this is a symptom of other personal traits but it carries extra weight when you consider the following; I am returning to Apple’s native applications at an increasing rate. This is only surprising with the context that Apple has endured a considerable amount of criticism of its native applications. Forgetting for a moment that Apple created the App Store and the iPhone, which is the vehicle for every [iOS] application, its own native applications have become perceived easy prey for the critics of the internet.

An abundance of alternatives are providing new and novel ways for tackling core tasks such as email management, calendars and messaging. As the App Store is out of its infancy Apple allowed more flexibility on its devices. This combination meant that users didn’t need to use the built in pre-loaded applications that shipped with iOS. They could even ‘delete’ the native apps that they no longer had a use for. As a digital product designer I embraced this development fully – maybe even too much. Each week seemed to bring a new interaction paradigm, a new navigation model, a new and – dare I say it, exciting – way to handle my inbox. The frustrating hangover from a more closed iOS meant that I couldn’t change my phones ‘default’ email client, but this was a small concession. I had all but un-tethered myself from the Apple-App ecosystem.

All things come to an end, and this was no exception.

The transition began with one of my previous email applications/clients becoming less stable due to its developers acquisition and therefore the developers decreased support for the application; I was once again looking for a new email client. With former favourites either being acquired, or moving to a subscription model I was ‘stuck’ in the limbo of using Apple’s native app; Mail. I only ever intended this to be a stop-gap. I had been lured by pretty interfaces with their smooth lines and crisp aesthetics, I was reluctant to ‘settle’ with the chrome greys of Apple’s Mail on Mac – which held authority over my choice of iOS app. My ‘everyday’ email is an apple ‘@me’ address so I was also restricted by that – and for reasons that are not entirely logical, I was reluctant to reply on Google web services and the email attached to that. What I was noticing however, whilst searching for replacement applications, was that Mail was ‘just working.’ As a number of services were trialed and subsequently cast aside, Mail just kept on working. Syncing everything, allowing a wide range of control and I even created a few new rules & smart folders to sort through email. I think there is absolutely a case for Apple to give Mail a bit of attention from a user-experience angle, but at its core, everything it sets out to do, it does. And it works very well accross OS, iOS, and iCloud, which should be expected and is becoming increasingly valuable.

With my recent upgrade to an iPhone X (which I am totally sold on after using it) the retreat back to native applications has quickened. With the new screen ratio and navigation gestures the native Apple apps just ‘feel’ better and fully optimised for the handset and the iOS. This is of course to be expected when the software and hardware is developed by the same company, and this is always been where Apple come into its own. Often seen as a negative thing, Apple’s ‘walled’ garden of integrated software & hardware means everything is optimised. There are fewer cooks to spoil the broth. There are fewer concessions due to unexpected performance issues in hardware, or even better, software can be conscious of any future hardware developments so it can be create with an eye on longevity. This meant that when I booted up my iPhone X, 100% of my native apps were ready to go, optimised for the new navigation gestures and screen; my third party apps were not. I understand that this isn’t a totally fair situation; Apple will have known about the changes to the screen dimension years in advance, the developers had to adapt, relatively, on the fly. This kind of shift doesn’t come cheap. But with users expecting the majority of their content on demand, they have become accustomed to expecting their applications to evolve seamlessly with them. Any time they have to make a concession or accept compromise it’s negative one point for that brand or applications relationship with their user/customer. And all these points add up.

"The wolves have been scratching at the door…"

There has been a lot of talk of Apple losing some of its magic under the stewardship of Tim Cook. The wolves have been scratching at the door with claims that they have become sloppy and they are making careless choices. In someways I am inclined to agree; however in the last few months, after living with my new iPhone X I am confident that this is the same Apple the world became infatuated with after the introduction of the original iPhone. The native apps may be lacking in areas and they may need a bit of attention, but Apple has been busy. They have been revolutionising the way we interact with our phones, they have been changing our expectations to what we can do away from a computer. Recently they took what they established as the gold standard and changed it again. Un-apologetically and without regret, and after a period of doubt and hesitation (after actually using the iPhone X) I applaud them. The way that all of their once disparate services are once again tying in with one-another and ‘just working’ reveals a larger plan at work. Once Apple align all their shiny new devices I feel a full [new] iteration of a global OS will be the final piece of that puzzle. I think that once that day comes we will see deeper relationships between all of the native apps, devices and services all accommodated by a much, much smarter Siri. This will mean an ‘organic’, easier integration of tasks and will also mean that if you don’t adapt as a service or application to add a decernable value to my everyday, your app icon won’t last long on my home screen.

We have already witnessed the integration of services meaning the apparent devaluation of companies. Shazam’s integration to Siri meant that Shazam needed to evolve to hold value with users, otherwise; why would they download an app when they can already identify music through the inbuilt OS on their device? This pattern exists in the physical world too. If you ignore their questionable decisions for a moment, Uber changed the way London moves. The infamous black cab was suddenly fighting for the first time in decades, because a tech company came along and provided an alternate (often better) experience for users.

This form of evolutionary change is inevitable and I welcome it.

Sometimes it can be uncomfortable to inhabit the limbo in between milestones, but it is part of the process. Any temporary annoyance caused by parts developing in isolation are soothed if their coming together serves a greater goal in a conclusion.

Like it or not, apps on iOS have always had to play to the tune of its conductor; Apple. I would say that despite the out cry of some, this leads to a greater composition. As I’ve said; I believe Apple is only going to strengthen this control – recently they’ve shown this with the HomePod. Apps have always been tied to iOS, for example preferences are all handled from one central location – this attachment is increasing with deeper integration of cross-application sharing and actions. Maybe the next big iteration of [i]OS won’t have a home screen or even apps, but will instead be a seamless web of micro services strung between hardware, with Apple pulling the strings. Whether those strings produce exquisite puppetry or a tangled mess remains to be seen.

Words — Jack Sadler

Pictures — Jack Sadler