The biggest debate among developers in 2013 was if Apple’s complete overhaul of iOS was a good or a bad thing. Now almost six months since its public release, the dust has settled and most developers would agree that, all in all, iOS 7 was a smart move on Apple’s part. But in order to keep Apple’s all-important developer base happy in 2014, it’s going to have to fix the larger issues that still plague the iOS ecosystem. Here are the top four feature requests developers told me they have for Apple this year.
"My only wish for this year would be that Apple reinvents the App Store," says Ales Bellotti, when I ask him what the best thing is that Apple could do for developers in 2014. Bellotti is the developer behind a number of popular utility apps for iOS, including My Scans PRO. "It is very hard to make your app visible and earn some money. There are hundreds of great apps in the store we never see."
Bellotti’s wish is something I have heard from dozens of iOS developers and it pinpoints one of the most lacking things about the iOS ecosystem: a comprehensive system of accurate and relevant discovery so users can find the most useful apps to fulfill their needs.
Currently discoverability on the App Store is a bit of a crapshoot, which hurts both users and developers. And here the fault lies squarely with Apple. After all, search is the one thing the company could never say they are better at than their closest rival Google. Apple is clearly aware of this issue, as they bought app discovery firm Chomp for a reported $50 million back in 2012, but so far it doesn’t appear much has come of the acquisition.
But good discoverability isn’t the only thing haunting developers. Many also take note with the App Store’s current user ratings and reviews system and hope Apple works to fix it in 2014.
"A fix is long overdue," says Scott Dunlap, developer of the critically acclaimed Habit List to-do app for iOS. "The store is littered with fake reviews and ratings, and developers spam their own titles to get better placement. A short description is fine, but a lot of apps are simply listing keywords in their app title. Apple should crack down on blatant gaming."
That’s something Bellotti agrees with and he also hopes that Apple allows for a way for developers to respond to reviews. "We often get some stupid one-star reviews we cannot answer. For example, for our My Scans scanner app [which is a utility, not a game] one reviewer wrote, ‘The baddest game ever’ and gave it one star. There should be a way to reply to the review."
Of course, the problems plaguing a ratings system in need of an overhaul and a discoverability system in need of improvement go hand in hand. As long as accurate and relevant discoverability is an issue, unscrupulous developers will find other ways, including paying for good reviews for their apps and leaving negative reviews for competitors' apps, to boost their standing in the App Store, leaving the ethical developers with the stellar apps at an unfair advantage.
Discoverability and ratings weren't the only things developers told me they had issues with as far as the App Store was concerned. Virtually all of the developers I spoke with said the next most important thing Apple could do to improve the iOS developer ecosystem was to allow for paid app upgrades and trial versions of software, something they say would help both developers and end users and ultimately, they believe, lead to better sales and happier customers.
"The ability to try apps before buying would remove a lot of the marketing gimmicks and lobbying—and the unbearably low prices," says Raphael Sebbe, developer of Prizmo, a respected document scanning app for iOS. "The current situation is that users are forced to buy a few apps when they only want one, probably starting with the one with the best marketing and hopefully finishing with the one they really need."
Sebbe argues that the current approach of no "try before you buy" is a disservice toward users and can ultimately turn them off from spending their money on any other untested apps.
"Just yesterday I needed an app that would turn my iPhone into an AirPlay mic. I bought three of them and none worked the way I wanted. I finished frustrated, feeling that I wasted some money and ended up deleting the apps. Is this really the best buying experience that Apple can provide? This is in sharp contrast with the values of clarity and honesty that Apple products in general and iOS 7 in particular are about. Doesn't Apple allow trying their Macs and iPhone in Apple Stores? Why not apps? In-app purchases are being pushed to realize that, but it's not their purpose and it's complex for developers. iOS could easily change the situation by providing free, time-limited app trials."
Time-limited app trials weren’t the only things developers wish Apple would change with their pricing strategy. Almost every developer I spoke with also said they are waiting for the day Apple allows for paid app upgrades in the App Store.
Currently users can buy an app once and get free updates to that app for life. On the surface this seems like its a boon for users, but it ultimately hurts them in the long run, one very prominent developer who wished to remain anonymous told me:
"Look, if you’re a small developer—no matter how popular your app is—it still costs a lot of time and money to add major new features to it. I’m not getting any additional income for those free updates, so in order for me to make up for my expenses I need to add a ton of new users. That’s not always doable, especially for successful apps which have a limited audience. The result is I’ve sat on several big new features for the last 10 months and will be rolling them out in an entirely new app this year instead of adding them to the app my loyal users have already paid for. Is it fair to my existing users? No. Will it piss them off? Probably. But being able to put food on the table for my children is more important. Apple could eliminate these dilemmas if they wanted to—they just choose not to."
Outside of the App Store, iCloud was the next most important topic on developers’ minds. Cloud computing has exploded in the last few years and many users now expect to be able to access their files from anywhere at anytime. Dropbox has brought reliable sync and cloud access to thousands of apps with great success (and praise from developers), but getting Apple’s iCloud to work reliably and consistently in those same apps rarely ever happens.
"When using Core Data, Apple needs to make iCloud sync work flawlessly," Habit List’s Dunlap tells me. "This is currently our biggest request, but developers with more resources than us have yet to get it working reliably."
To see how widespread iCloud reliability issues occur, one only has to take a brief glance at the longhelp documents many developers post to guide users through iCloud troubleshooting. But many developers have told me that even if they enter into lengthy email exchanges with their users in order to help them to try to sort out iCloud issues, their users end up blaming them and not Apple for iCloud’s faults, which makes the perceived reliability of their app take a hit.
However, reliability of iCloud’s backend is only part of the problem of Apple’s cloud solutions, Raphael Sebbe says. Instead, Apple needs to reenvision how iCloud stores your documents and allows users to access them.
"The success of Dropbox in all these document productivity apps reveals that Apple's solution really isn't good enough," says Sebbe. "I don't want silo apps each managing their own TXT, PDF, or VIDEO documents."
Instead Sebbe says Apple needs to introduce what he calls "iCloud Document Streams" (modeled after iCloud’s Photo Stream capability) that allows any compatible app to read or write to a document in the stream. This is something cloud storage leader Dropbox allows developers to do relatively easily.
"Another thing Dropbox got right," Sebbe adds, "is the ability to share folders between people. iCloud document streams could be shared with other people. Sending a copy of a file to a colleague by mail really shouldn't be the recommended way of collaboration in 2014."
Making developers happy isn’t only achieved by improvements outside of iOS. While Apple’s mobile OS saw plenty of design changes in 2013 along with some pretty cool new features for developers, such as iBeacons, improvements to MapKit, AirDrop support, background refresh, and more, all of the developers I talked to had a laundry list of improvements they want to see Apple make in 2014. Overwhelmingly the majority of these centered around interoperability, multitasking, and access to deeper APIs.
"I’d like iOS to allow for actionable notifications," Dunlap tells me. "In our app, users can set reminders for their habits. When one pops up, the user should have the option to mark items as complete. Instead they have to stop what they’re doing, tap a button to launch Habit List, mark the item as done, quit out, and relaunch the app they were previously using—when a single tap is all that’s needed."
Dunlap also says he’d like to see Apple allow access to new APIs, including Siri, something he says will become even more important as iOS is further integrated with our cars.
Increased API access is something all developers stated they wanted—even if those APIs appeared seemingly insignificant.
"This feature request may sound a bit boring," says Christopher White, a Brooklyn-based iOS engineer, "but one thing I've always needed access to within almost every app is either the current user's phone number or favorite phone contacts. Right now there is no API to get either of these and so every app has to ask the user to enter their phone number. The phone app on iOS is separate from the actual underlying address book and the address book API so you have no way to know who a user's favorite contacts are so that you can, for instance, make it easier for a user to invite one of their closest friends to use an app."
Numerous developers also hope to see Apple open up iOS more in the next major release. Virtually every developer I spoke with, understandably, hopes that Apple may one day allow for the ability to let the user set their own default apps for email, calendars, and more, though no developer thinks this will become a reality anytime soon. Many developers also want Apple to seize on the advances in the iPad Air and make it a truly powerful workstation by allowing for multiple user accounts so iOS could handle multiple business users or family member accounts instead of developers having to spend a lot of their time coding for multiple users inside individual apps.
Making the iPad into a more powerful—and true usurper to a PC—workstation is also something Sebbe believes will be achievable only after Apple improves the ability of apps to interact with one another.
"I, along with many other developers, was expecting improved interacting between apps at WWDC 13, but nothing arrived," Sebbe explains. "URL schemes are good but too limited. They removed shared pasteboards in iOS 7—breaking some apps along the way. Having apps that provide OS-wide services, be it storage, like Dropbox and Google Drive, or social services, or anything else, that any app could interact with would be great. Think of the kind of Twitter interactions that are currently available in iOS, but that any app could provide to other apps. There were some rumors at some point of view controllers from an app that could be displayed in another app—that would be great! Both Android and Windows Phone have surpassed Apple on that front, so now is a good time for Apple to do something."
While the above suggestions may make it seem like developers are overly critical of the iOS development ecosystem Apple has created, that criticism only comes from a desire to see Apple improve upon what virtually all the developers I spoke with told me they see as an already great ecosystem to be a part of.
And despite these criticisms, almost all of the developers I spoke with believed that Apple really does listen to their feedback and work to make changes (albeit slowly at times) that make their work lives easier.
Habit List's developer Dunlap says for proof of this one need not look any further than the latest iOS 7.1 beta.
"Apple’s always been quick to iterate after each major release, and that’s certainly happening with the current beta," Dunlap says. "But it also seems as if they are doing a better job of listening to developers. They took a step back from the ultra thin fonts, made changes to the lock screen, and allowed for reduced motion. In this release they’ve increased the transition speeds, toned down some of the icons, and added optional button shapes. I may not agree with all of their solutions, but these were some of developers’ biggest criticisms and it’s nice to see Apple being more open to feedback."
[Image: Flickr user Sarah Reid]