A Moment of Clarity Regarding the Raison d’Etre for the App Store

Feel free to file Google’s release this week of an update to their iPad Gmail app with support for split-screen multitasking under “better late than never”, but this is so late it borders on the absurd. It’s like the difference between showing up fashionably late and showing up a week after the party. Split-screen multitasking was introduced for the iPad back in 2015 with iOS 9. Five years to add support for a foundational element of the iPad user experience. And an email client is near the top of the list of the type of apps where someone would want to use split-screen. Five years.

Google makes a lot of software with terrible user experiences for users who have poor taste. Their iOS software, in particular, has for the most part never suggested that it was designed by people who like — or even use — iOS. It’s the blind leading the blind. But yet the Gmail app is currently the number one free app in the Productivity category in the App Store.

On the surface, it’s tempting to blow this off. To each their own. Whatever floats their boat. Who cares if millions of iPad users are satisfied using an email client that is a poor iPad app, so long as actual good iPad email clients are available to those who do care?

But what about those stuck using the Gmail app not because they want to, but because they have to? Who can help them but Apple?

I worry that it’s not tenable in the long run to expect Apple to continue striving to create well-crafted — let alone insanely great — software when so many of its users not only settle for, but perhaps even prefer, software that is, to put it kindly, garbage. There have always been popular Mac and iPhone apps that are objectively terrible apps — where by “popular” I mean much-used, not much-loved. But what made Apple users Apple users is that they complained vociferously if they had to use a terrible app. Word 6 was a sack of dog shit Microsoft dropped off and set aflame on Mac users’ porches, but we all knew it was a flaming bag of dog shit, and even those of us who didn’t use Word were angry about it because it was an insult.

I worry that this sort of “Who cares, it’s better than nothing” attitude has seeped into Apple itself, and explains how we wound up with barely modified iPad apps shipping as system apps on the Mac.

But more than anything I worry that this exemplifies where Apple has lost its way with the App Store. What exactly is the point of running a strict approval process for apps if not, first and foremost, to ensure that they’re good apps? An iPad email app that doesn’t support split-screen multitasking for five years is, by definition, not a good app.

I’d like to see all the vim, vigor, and vigilance Apple applies to making sure no app on the App Store is making a dime without Apple getting three cents applied instead to making sure there aren’t any scams or rip-offs, and that popular apps support good-citizen-of-the-platform features within a reasonable amount of time after those features are introduced in the OS. I don’t know exactly how long “reasonable” is, but five fucking years for split-screen support ain’t it.

You might argue that there are a million apps in the App Store and Apple can’t make sure every one of them is up to snuff quality-wise. But there’s no need to scrutinize a million apps — just start with the apps with a million users. The more popular an app is the more Apple should scrutinize it in terms of being, simply, a decent citizen of the platform. If they’re going to be stringent about App Store review, they should be stringent in the name of user experience.

That the iPad’s most-installed productivity app was allowed to languish for half a decade without supporting something as fundamental to the platform as split-screen is every bit as much a condemnation of the state of the App Store as the Hey imbroglio was. It’s the other side of the same coin.

The primary purpose of the App Store should be to steer third-party apps toward excellence, to make the platform as a whole as insanely great as possible. When Steve Jobs introduced the App Store in 2008, he said, “We don’t intend to make any money off the App Store. We’re basically giving all the money to the developers and the 30 percent that pays for running the store, that’ll be great.” Really. It’s impossible to square that mindset with the App Store of today, where the highest priority1 seemingly is the generation of ever-increasing revenue in the Services column of Apple’s quarterly finance spreadsheet.

Apple undeniably wields great power from the fact that the App Store is the exclusive source for all consumer software for the iPhone and iPad. Why not use that power in the name of user experience? Imagine a world where the biggest fear developers had when submitting an app for review wasn’t whether they were offering Apple a sufficient cut of their revenue, but whether they were offering users a good enough native-to-the-platform experience. Video app that doesn’t support picture-in-picture? You’re out of the store. App doesn’t support dynamic type size but clearly should? You’re out. Poor accessibility support? Out. Popular email client that doesn’t support split screen? Out.

Rather than watch Apple face antitrust regulators in the U.S. and Europe with a sense of dread, I’d watch with a sense of glee. “This company is abusing its market dominance to take an unfair share of our money” is an age-old complaint to government regulators. “This company is abusing its market dominance to force us to make our apps better for users” would be delightful new territory. Only Apple could do that.

Great products often (but, sadly, not always) generate profit. Successfully navigating this dynamic — earning profits as a natural byproduct of the creation of consistently great products that people want to buy — is the story of Apple’s entire 40-year history in a nutshell. But profit seeking, as an end unto itself, does not generate excellence — and in fact generally results in the opposite. Apple, like any great company, is rightfully driven by an insatiable appetite, but that appetite ought to be for adding ever more artistic and technical excellence to the world, not mining ever more money from it.

You can’t pack every last ounce of joy, beauty, and elegance into something while simultaneously trying to squeeze every last dollar out of it.

  1. You can reasonably argue that revenue generation is not the highest priority of today’s App Store, but you can’t seriously argue that it isn’t a top priority — and that alone puts it in conflict with Jobs’s founding description. ↩︎