This is the year mobile went mainstream. Smartphones are making their way around the globe, startups are often mobile-first or, increasingly, mobile-only, and finding a Web service that doesn’t have an accompanying smartphone app is like finding a sober binge-drinker at a New Year’s Eve party.
Despite this shift, however, it seems developers and companies have yet to embrace everything mobile has to offer, especially on iOS. Half-assed implementations of Game Center, Apple’s online gaming network, and iCloud, the “all your stuff, everywhere” service meant to erase the memory of MobileMe, abound. Apps still ship without support for both tablets and smartphones, irritating customers who own both types of device.
Game Center integration is a classic example of the “chicken and the egg” problem. If Game Center doesn’t have enough users who rely on the service to play with their friends, building support for the system shifts from being a key feature of the iOS platform to being just another feature to cross off a checklist. And until those customers and developers rely on Game Center, Apple doesn’t have much incentive to improve the feature, creating an endless cycle of neglect.
Apple’s iCloud is a bit different. Developers have experimented with the protocol, and it’s popular among iOS and Mac-based writing apps, but it’s not of much use outside of that relatively small niche. Some games take advantage of iCloud to sync game saves across platforms, making it easier to move between the iPhone and iPad, but those games are typically the exception, not the rule. Right now iCloud is less “all your stuff everywhere” and more “some of your stuff on supported platforms if the developer figures out how to make it work reliably.”
Which is a problem, especially for users who own both an iPhone and an iPad. Apple’s mobile operating system powers hundreds of millions of devices and purports to offer a unified experience across multiple platforms, but the experience of jumping from the iPhone to the iPad remains disjointed. Instead of being able to forget which device we’re using and get right at our content, we’re constantly reminded – whether it’s by a game that didn’t sync its save state across devices or an app that doesn’t keep its content up to date on each platform – that computing is still device-specific.
Besides the issues listed above, which are partially Apple’s fault, there’s one simple issue that makes using both platforms a pain: Non-universal apps.
Downloading apps on iOS is likely one of the simplest features of the platform, but Apple has built a powerful system that actively encourages cross-platform applications. Users who download a universal app on their iPhone, for example, can walk over to their iPad and see that that same app has made its way to their tablet “automagically.” Easy. (This feature can be turned off if you, like me, share an Apple ID with family members.)
Yet we still see apps that ship iPhone- or iPad-only. We’ve covered a few examples of each, whether it’s Rockmelt, a social Web browser that first shipped on the iPad; Quote.fm, a read-later service that did the same; or Prismatic, a social reading service exclusive to the iPhone and the Web. There are more notable examples – Tumblr released its iPad app just last week, for instance – and likely many more than can be listed here.
Sticking with one platform over the other presents users with a choice: Sucking it up and using different solutions for each platform, or finding an app that supports both. Despite preferring Quote.fm over other read-later solutions, for example, Pocket, a similar service, stayed on my Home Screen until Quote.fm finally made it to the iPhone. Apps – especially content-focused apps, like Quote.fm and Prismatic – keep data under lock and key, creating unnecessary, problematic data silos.
Apple has built all of the tools in place to create a truly cross-platform computing experience. Some apps, like iA Writer, Byword, and Day One (all writing apps, in one way or another) have used these tools to great effect, but many others haven’t. Being able to pick up a device and have a unified experience is a central thesis of the shift to mobile, and many of the tools are in place. Not perfect – far from it, in some cases – but available.
Now, one could place the blame on Apple and say that the company’s solutions aren’t perfect – and they’d be right. But placing all of the blame on the Cupertino-based company’s shoulders lets developers who don’t do everything they can to work with what’s available off the hook. Are Apple’s tools perfect? No. Will they get the job done? Most of the time, yes. It’s up to developers to use those tools and show Apple that there is a demand for something better.