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What I Don’t Like About iPhone Apps

There is a disturbing trend in the development of iPhone apps, and I don't like it. Here's why.

On Twitter, I follow Apple's feed for new apps, @apple_app_store. Announcements come at a dizzying pace, and as of today, there are 53,635 apps for iPhone/iPod touch on the Apple App Store, according to

The problem is that too many of these apps are simply shells for information sources that are already available on the Internet. It's easy to illustrate with a Venn diagram. If we think of the set of all information sources on the Internet, the iPhone apps are simply becoming a bigger and bigger subset. Like this:


A qualitative, not quantitative Venn diagram for illustration only


Where will it stop? Do we really need an iPhone app for Toyota Vehicles Updates or a Chess database? Many of these apps merely draw upon information already out there, accessible with Safari, reformat it, and then cram it into an iPhone display. Now, while that has occasional advantages, I doubt whether it always merits a dedicated application.

I tend to think of apps as providing a function, a utility, that helps me get my own job done or provides critical information. In some cases, very nice apps like USA Today and The Weather Channel provide a quicker, more concise look at information I need.

Of course, none of this applies to games. Games are fun, and can exist in an almost infinite variety. I'm talking about stuff that's already out there and free -- if we aren't too lazy to go look for it.

But really. If you look at the explosion in iPhone apps, people are running out of ideas for apps that are truly helpful, in some ingenious way, and exploit the iPhone's strengths. For example, G-Park -- which I consider a canonical application for the iPhone. Nowadays, though, we're just getting into excess.

The only reason for this bonanza is that everyone wants in on the iPhone Gold Rush. However, the good mines and streams have already been emptied by the early birds. Now, it's all about the feverish process finding an information source, say, needlework or birds of the Galapagos (I'm making that up) that gets an app into the system, hoping for something good to happen.

On the positive side, all this means plenty of work for Cocoa Touch developers. That can't hurt.

Overall, though, I think this Gold Rush is why we have 53,635 channels in the App Store and nothing to watch. How it will all evolve will be interesting to observe.

15 comments from the community.

You can post your own below.

jbruni said:

I find it funny that the majority of these new applications are, as you state, shells around content already on the Internet. Yet, when iPhone 1.0 was out, and Apple’s initial stance for applications on the iPhone was AJAX, developers pitched an unholy fit.

Out comes iPhone 2.0 with an SDK that let’s you write really Cocoa apps. And what do we have? A variety of apps that could be implemented in AJAX.


John Martellaro said:

Exactly, but the business model of the App Store has that sweet smell of fast cash.



Scott said:

I hate to say this out loud, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this was in part due to the fact that a lot of people jumping on the iphone app programming bandwagon were not mac software developers first.  Let’s face it, on windows there may be 1000 apps that do the same thing, but 99.9% of them suck, and were written with getting a piece of that market share pie in mind, not because the author really cared about quality or user experience.


John Martellaro said:

Scott, you may be on to something there.  Has Apple unwittingly allowed that degradation of the App Store brand by legacy PC developers, blinded itself by the rush to dominate smartphone market??? Hmm….


Kendall said:

Perhaps the utility customers find in wrapping data sources is that the stuff is accessed quicker, and with fewer/less intrusive ads.  It’s almost like obtaining an app is ad-block for people who don’t want to figure out what ad-blockers are, or how to add a safari link to the iPhone home page.

It’s also possible some of appeal is reformatting data on the web in a friendlier way than it is usually presented, and thus making the data more accessible than it would have been otherwise.

I don’t think data wrapper apps will ever drown out the ones that provide real value…


Terry Maraccini said:

I personally like specific apps that search for spewcific information. It’s not practical all the time, but it does serve a useful purpose. So, if you are going to allow for that type of programming, you have to allow for apps that might not be your cup of tea. Ask 10 people and you will get 10 different responses to their favorite app. I for one prefer this behavior. YMMV.

And yes, there probably is a “need” for an iPhone app for Toyota Vehicles Updates


R David said:

The interesting stuff, like heavy-duty applications, take time to develop, especially when wanting to do it right.  That is why such apps come out at a slower pace.  As the the app store grows, I’m finding more useful, meaningful, well thought out, and productive apps.


Peter said:

The term I use is “glorified web page.”

In some cases, it’s useful.  The classic example is Yelp, a useful collection of business reviews.  Want to find “a good restaurant nearby?”  Well, Yelp needs to know where you are, so it needs the GPS.  No problem there.  On the other hand, Target has an App which will choose a gift for a friend when you shake the phone.  This, versus pressing the “Find Gift” button.  Boy, that’s innovative.

I’ve seen promotional Apps for artists which are obviously using the same content as the website.  And this is an App.  Heck, the reference to Toyota made me go take a look at the App and I saw the “Toyota of Waterford” App, which let’s you look at their car list.  You can do this from their website.  Looking at the Toyota Vehicles Update App, it’s $4.99!  I can get the same info from the web for free!

And that’s not to mention the all the tip calculators, fart noise makers, and other “me too!” Apps.

Don’t get me wrong, though.  As Terry said, 10 different people will give 10 different responses for their favorite App.  And I’d rather Apple not decide that “Eh, we already have enough tip calculators—we don’t need another one.”  But when I hear some iPhone user tell me, “Hey!  The Android Store only has 3,000 apps and the App Store has 50,000!”  I just shake my head and point out that Windows has more applications than Mac OS X.  That doesn’t make it better.

The big concern is when I hear somebody with an interesting App saying that he’s waiting for Apple to do something.  Meanwhile, he’s stuck in an evaluation queue behind 5 fart apps, 43 glorified web pages, and a tip calculator.  That’s a waste of everybody’s time.


rjackb said:

There are some legitimate reasons to write a native iPhone app that presents much of the same information that an iPhone specific web app does:
1) You have access to the full range of iPhone UI features rather than the more limited set of features available via the iPhone Safari web browser so you can make it a more usable app.
2) A native app could be far more responsive, perhaps even by several orders of magnitude, than a web app for multiple reasons (depending upon its design):
  - You are probably obtaining your data via a special web service that has been optimized to both retrieve and send only the minimum amount of data from a database that is necessary for display on an iPhone rather than using a generic web service or server-side software that was originally designed for a normal web site.
  - You have the ability to cache data on the iPhone in a SQLite database (or in other ways) so that subsequent use of the app could be much faster because you don’t need to hit the network for that data.
  - You can respond to touch interactions on the iPhone immediately rather than probably having to wait for both an HTTP request and subsequent response (which can be very slow and even exceed the patience of the user).
  - You don’t have to use hacks, which don’t always work, in a web app like automatically scrolling on a page load in order to hide the address bar.
  - You have better (or possibly the only) access to Mail and other apps on the iPhone that you may not have in a web app. So, you could, for example, send an email quickly and directly from the iPhone rather than having to send it server side.

There are probably a number of other reasons as well.


rjackb said:

Oops, I messed up the formatting on that last post. Sorry about that. Starting with the “hacks” item, it should have been item 3 rather than under 2.


Mark said:

I tend to agree, to an extent, but…..... you mention USA Today and The Weather Channel, neither of them do I care to have use for. There are millions of people that feel the same way you and I do about specific apps, yet may have great need for some we care less about. One shouldn’t judge others needs or want when dealing on such a large scale of people. As far as internet based applications that do the same thing “what if the internet or phone service is not available?”. I guess you have no need to carry a calculator for basic math. I realize that many times you may find it hard to submit an article, but this is a poor example of journalism. How it even passed through an editors sight is beyond me.


Ken said:

The thing I have learned (reasonably fast) is that I don’t need 100 apps on my iPhone.

I have picked out the ones I used and have been realistic on the ones I “might” use.  There really aren’t that many that I really want when I look at it realistically.

Then I add in the ones for my wife - who actually has priority.  That’s how I’ve been married for 40 years.

Now add in a dozen games for the grandkids, who have learned their apps on on the last pages.


gslusher said:

I don’t have an iPhone, so I can’t comment on iPhone apps, specifically. However, this sort of “app” has been around a long time. I use WeatherDock, which shows current weather information on the icon in the dock plus more information, including forecasts, if I click on the icon. WeatherDock gets information from The Weather Channel. I could go to the Weather Channel site, or Yahoo!, and get exactly the same information, but it would take longer and is not as easy to customize.


GGeek said:

This happened with Dashboard Widgets, too.  A lot of widgets are really just websites or RSS feeds plugged into a little floating window.  I don’t understand why anyone is surprised that the iPhone Apps have gone the same route.

This is the world we live in: 99% pyrite, 1% gold.  What I’m really surprised about is that Apple isn’t doing a better job helping us find the gold. 

Maybe it’s like the supermarket scheme where they move food sections around every few months so you have to walk through the whole store to find what you’re looking for. In that wandering, you’re exposed to sections you might have otherwise passed by, and that increases the chance that you’ll spend more money, especially on impulse items.

Apple has the style, the expertise, and the cash to streamline the app store and app-approval mess.  One wonders why a whole year has passed without it being addressed.

[/two cents]


Bryanska said:

I am shopping for an iPhone and am floored by all the crap apps.

What amazes me most, why is the app list so tedious to browse? Is it easier browsing on the phone than on a computer? As it is now, I don’t want the iPhone strictly because the available apps are such a letdown, OR because they’re buried among 50k of them.

However, I would pay $3-5 for an app that would do a GOOD JOB of sorting the wheat from the chaff.


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