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Why Apple rules UX, its native iOS apps suck, and that's OK

Why Apple rules UX, its native iOS apps suck, and that's OK

Some of Apple's native apps languished when the company prioritized user experience over app development.

Every iPhone Apple sells today ships with 32 native applications but few, if any, are considered best in class. It may seem like Apple has lost its edge on mobile apps and software design, but the company's primary mission to sell hardware certainly hasn't suffered as a result. Indeed, the Apple experience -- a polished user interface married with premium hardware -- is as much about looks as functionality, and the technology ecosystem Apple has built continues to grow and mature.

As of March, the company had sold 726.2 million iPhones, giving it an 18.3 percent share of the global smartphone market, according to IDC. Last November, Apple announced that it had sold more than 1 billion total iOS devices.

Some iOS users supplant Apple's stock applications, such as Mail, Calendar and Messages, with more familiar and sometimes better-designed apps, including Gmail, Outlook, Snapchat and Facebook Messenger. However, for every user who relegates Apple's native apps to less desirable real estate on their home screens, maybe even junk folders, many others get everything they need from the apps that Apple provides.

Third-party developers and Apple's software ecosystem

One of Apple's most significant decisions during the past decade was to open up its mobile OS to third-party app developers, including tech heavies Facebook and Google. That decisive shift fueled Apple's ascendency, but its own native applications have somewhat fallen victim to the otherwise successful strategy.

More than 100 billion third-party apps have been downloaded, and more than $30 billion was paid out to developers since Apple's App Store launched in 2008, according to CEO Tim Cook, who also spoke last month at the company's Worldwide Developer Conference. That equates to an average at least 100 apps downloaded to every iOS device Apple sold, and it's more than three times the amount of native apps that ship with a new iOS device.

Apple is well-known for the premium ecosystem it enables across its family of devices, but many of the largest leaps in design and functionality on its platforms come from external developers. The company also to struggles with developing an ecosystem for the average users who just wants their devices to work for basic tasks, as well as for the much smaller group of users that want to fully immerse themselves in modern design or hone in on particular features or functionality.

Josiah Humphrey, co-CEO and founder of the iOS and Android development firm Appster, says Apple isn't necessarily losing its edge when it comes to software, but the company may not be innovating at the same pace as it has in the past.

"The iPhone, to some extent, hasn't really changed from what it was six or seven years ago" but Apple still provides users with the best and most complete mobile experience available today, Humphrey says. "For me, there's no argument that their UX [user experience] is the best in the world," Apple is still ahead of the curve and "constantly pushing the user experience where it needs to go.

To continue to enhance that experience, Apple relies largely on external developers to populate its ecosystem with apps that increase functionality, as well drive usage and demand, according to Jeff Francis, cofounder and COO of the mobile design and development firm Copper Mobile.

"There are some mission-critical apps that Apple includes on a given platform, but that's not Apple's prime directive," Francis says. "Unless they see a significant business opportunity in a specific market like HealthKit or Apple Music, Apple generally leaves the app development to other players who will ultimately enrich the Apple experience."

Latest apps represent new face of Apple software

However, Apple's newest applications, such as Apple Music and the forthcoming Apple News, are indicative of a new push to reinvent its software UX. These apps represent Apple's latest attempt to innovate in industries that are riddled with complexities -- one of which (music) it has dominated for more than a decade via iTunes and another (news and information) it tried and failed to improve upon a few times in the past.

Apple isn't pursuing these new endeavors out of a desire to wow users with its design chops; instead, it sees authentic business opportunities that are ripe for the taking. "Apple Music won't change how people see Apple as a software company, but it could change how they view Apple as a music company," says Francis.

'Symbiotic' relationship between Apple software design, functionality

Apple's designers need to think beyond aesthetics, because it's more important for them to understand how customers will use apps and then determine what design choices or elements can support those use cases, Francis says. "Design and functionality are symbiotic -- excellence in one depends on excellence in the other. Great software and mobile apps cannot exist without an exhaustive commitment to design and relentless dedication to functionality."

The decisions Apple makes about its own software development and design have far-reaching implications on the entire Apple ecosystem. "If it changes something major within its ecosystem, that can cause outrage on a global scale, Francis says. "So many people rely on Apple products and software that if Apple swings and misses it can be devastating moving forward."

Meanwhile, hardware is still Apple's primary objective and greatest source of revenue. "Software's just been a competency that's sort of come along with that," says Appster's Humphrey. "Apple would want to encourage developers to build apps, probably even better than themselves, and I think that's what makes their hardware so valuable."

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