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April 2011
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gwen [userpic]
Dear iPhone App developers..

I may not be the most typical user of the iPhone*, I suspect most people don't put a pterm (putty) app on their phone in the first day so that they are sure they can get SSH access to their UNIX servers. However, I do suspect I have a lot in common with most iPhone users in what I consider to be the primary uses for it:

1) This is my primary, and perhaps only, phone. (This one does not apply to the iPod Touch users.)
2) This is my PDA (Personal Digital Assistant); I depend on my calendaring app, and I also use the notes and other life-utility apps frequently to keep my life in order.
3) This is my music player. I also listen to podcasts on this.

Given these three primary uses, I often go through apps in an almost ADD fashion as I need them. I might also be in the middle of using an app when I receive a phone call... or perhaps just a need to check on something more important than what I'm doing right then ("Am I late for my dentist appointment?")

Typical things I do with my iPhone:

-- When I am at lunch, I want to check into Foursquare about my location, and then use my ShapeUp app to record my calorie intake, then perhaps I'll check the weather to see what I should expect from the day.
-- While commuting by bus, I check into various news/blog sources and games while listening to my podcasts in order to pass the time.
-- When waiting somewhere (doctor's office? at a restaurant for a friend? at the bus stop? etc), I might idly flip through a few apps, often games I can easily put down when my wait is over.
-- When I am in bed, about to sleep, I often make a final check of all of my Words With Friends games, and perhaps read a bit in my Stanza ebook reader.

Rarely I find myself:

-- Dedicating time to the pursuit of finishing a serious game. I've had Myst on my iPhone for over a year now, and I've barely made it past the first level.

So here is why I am posting this. I recently went through a purge of apps I never used, and realized why I might never touch them, even if the core idea of the app is solid:

The app presumes I want to dedicate my time and resources to that app.

For instance, online game play apps that require you to continue playing your opponent until the game is done. I can't leave this game if my bus ends its route, my friend comes to the table, or even if I receive a phone call.

I think the developers of these sorts of games presume that their market is the same as flash players on the web; but the situational demographic has changed enough for this to not work. Yes, I am guessing that there are people who do treat their iPod Touches (more likely than the iPhones) as a gaming console, but they would be a minority. The larger monitor most people have on their laptops and desktops allows for easier staring for hours on end at flash games. And yes, there are people who like small portable consoles; those people tend to buy the Nintendo DS or other such devices, all of which are cheaper than the iPod Touch.

The app decides to take over my music.

I find this one particularly presumptuous; it is almost like the app is personally telling me, "I don't like your podcast listening ways with its diversity! You must listen to my looped internal music until your ears bleed!" OK, perhaps that is not what the developers were actually thinking... But really, when you are developing for a platform that boasts a music player as one of its primary selling points, why would you not allow for that music to continue when someone opens your app?

A corollary to this: I removed an alarm app (iAlarm) that boasted being able to play your music to wake you up! This sounded great... until I realized that it would overwrite whatever I was listening to with whatever "playlist" I had set up on that app. So if I accidentally tapped that icon instead of the one next to it... well, I was suddenly listening to my morning playlist instead of whatever it was I already had playing.

Apps that forget that I sometimes don't have network.

This was more of an issue when I was using the iPod Touch; but sometimes even the iPhone runs out of network. Hell, I lose network at least twice every work day just getting into my office building's elevator. It's a pain to try to use apps that act like their feet have just been cut off when the network goes away.

I am not all complaint though! I would like to point out some shining stars of my app life (other than the native apps), and why I find them so marvelous:

Words with Friends. This is a fantastic game for the iPhone and how I use it. I can take my turn at my leisure for any of the games I have running that are waiting on me. This means that I can get on the bus, input a few words, send them off to my friends, and continue on with life. Perfect!

Shape Up is a very well developed calorie tracking app in how it manages moving on and offline. If you are on the network, it will allow you to search the online database of foods you are eating. However, it does keep a locally cached set of common foods, which you can add to from the online database when you have network. This is a very commendable approach, in my opinion.

The GeoDefense series for their graphics. They took vector graphics and turned them into a defense game. The effect is a visually easy to see and parse in the small screen. It also just looks pretty. Kudos to them for their presentation.

None of these apps stops my music/podcast listening when I start them up too!

Thank you for reading my $0.02. I hope it was informative, at least on some level.

* Please note that I also mean the iPod Touch, I did start out with one myself! However, I am not going to laboriously list it explicitly in every sentence. Consider this justice for your eyes!


Given these three primary uses, I often go through apps in an almost ADD fashion as I need them. I might also be in the middle of using an app when I receive a phone call... or perhaps just a need to check on something more important than what I'm doing right then ("Am I late for my dentist appointment?")

Given these three primary uses (pretty much the same for me), I'm going to be extremely unhappy if the new iPhone that Apple releases this year (I'm assuming there will be one) does not have at least some reasonable level of multitasking capability. I'm disheartened by the fact that the iPad doesn't seem to have this (or, for that matter, fix any of the other problems of the phone, such as the terrible interface), as I doubt that Apple will be willing to upstage it with their new phone model so quickly.

I'm up for an upgrade this year (I could get one now, but I'm holding out for that new model). If they fail me on this, I may well have to give Android another serious look.

Given that this is available in the jailbroken versions, it is definitely possible and already implemented. I would actually be surprised if Apple didn't allow for backgrounding in the new OS release, especially with the Android pressure.

Well, Apple's claim has been that allowing multitasking would potentially degrade performance too much and ruin the "user experience" (whatever that is). Faster processors and more memory should make this more doable, though -- the 3GS already improved on both counts, and presumably a new model could go even further. The problem that I see is that the iPad does have a faster processor and more memory -- it's powerful enough that there's no good reason for it not to allow multiple apps to run simultaneously. But yet it doesn't.

I guess that since the issue is largely on the OS level, maybe they'll fix it in 4.0. Given Apple's track record for ignoring what users want, though, I'm not counting on it.

The other thing that I want to see fixed is the interface -- give us folders, dammit! Having pages and pages of unorganized apps means that, unless I have memorized where the app is located, I have to go searching for it every time. The ability to move apps around in iTunes helped a little, but not really. I mean, come on, even Blackberry has folders . . .

And yeah, I know that these issues could be fixed, at least to some extent, by jailbreaking. But my experience with that was less than pleasant. I had my phone jailbroken for less than an hour before Cydia just mysteriously stopped working. The fix to that? SSH into the phone. Only problem was that I hadn't installed SSH yet, and I needed Cydia in order to be able to do so! Oops. I decided at that point that jailbreaking was more effort than it was worth.

Besides, I'd really only jailbroken for the Categories app (to take care of that folder issue), and I found it less than useless since it was so slow and using it resulted in a long delay in getting to the app that I actually wanted to run.

Thing is, you're addressing iPhone core functionality. I was actually trying to talk to the more average iPhone app developers out there. :)

But yes, folders would be nice. Or at least a better way for me to organize my apps rather than trying to find them in my 10 screens (which is why I went on the pruning kick -- I was about to go over my screen limit!)

Haha, yeah, I'm just ranting because, while I really want to like my iPhone, these issues in particular have really kinda soured me to the whole platform.

"the user experience" is why anybody buys an apple product instead of the cheaper competition. Apple indeed does not pay overclose what people think they want. Yet it prints money by making devices and software nobody knew they needed, so clearly they're doing something very right.

Most people who are CMU-affiliated in any way are not Apple's target market.

I am confused by your comment. I wasn't posting about Apple, I was posting about the apps -- all of the apps to which I was referring are not made by Apple.

Oh, now that the comment comes up in the thread, I see you were responding to Eolh... meh, he was going off on a tangent being unhappy with the user experience of his iphone, actually. :)

the audio issue is actually that opening the audio device (playing or not) steals the audio. unlike a real mac, there's no in-software mixing.

perhaps developers should avoid opening audio until they need it, or make it optional sometimes.

The more well-developed games detect if you're already listening, and don't steal it. My Tap Farm does this, for instance.

I'm pretty sure the majority of iPhone users use it as a gaming console, they just don't consider it a primary function. Real time online gaming seems to be in the *vast* minority though, most games all have a similar pause function where you can hit the home button at any time and your progress will be saved.

It's not really an either or situation - people interested mobile gaming aren't out there trying to decide between an iPhone and a DS because the DS doesn't really function as a phone or a music player. Even in the event that a gamer has both like myself - I'm much more likely to pay $5-$10 for a game than $25-40. I don't consider my iPhone my primary gaming device but I spend about 30-60 uninterrupted minutes on it about 3 or 4 days a week playing something or other.

That is totally fair. And yes, I rarely find the games that seem to think that you necessarily have uninterrupted time; but I did find "Dots" this morning, which assigns you to another player online, and you play a game of Dots together in real-time -- if either leaves in the middle, they are penalized. That seems like poor design for an iPhone game.

I sometimes wonder what iPhone developers are thinking. I downloaded one game -- a Grand Theft Auto clone, I forget the name now -- that actually required that you play it every single day because it ran in "real time". Any day that you didn't play it, you would get penalized. Ignore it for a week, and you were pretty much done. Really? Needless to say, it wasn't long until I stopped bothering with it altogether.

Yeah, low barrier of entry results in a lot of questionable design. heh.

I suspect most people don't put a pterm (putty) app on their phone in the first day so that they are sure they can get SSH access to their UNIX servers.

There's putty for the iPhone? Because, that and lack of a decent IRC app were my two major stumbling blocks toward getting one. I'm going to need a new phone in less than a year, and I could see going iPhone if I can replace my constant companions of EVDO + netbook.

Here is a list of iPhone SSH apps. pTerm is what I use, since, well, it's PuTTY, and I know PuTTY.


I just stumbled across this post so I started a Words With Friends game with you. :)

Hee, awesome!

The multitasking thing is a big reason why I didn't go with the iPhone. Of course, I wish the Pre was a bit more refined than it actually is.


Just wanted to say thanks for this post. I work for Pittsburgh's LeftRight Studios (http://leftrightstudios.net and Twitter @leftrightstudio), and I'll make sure to forward your suggestions to the dev team. Particularly, the idea of extended multiplayer is something that everyone developing for the iPlatform should be taking more seriously. Why make a chess-app that I have to play someone online in real time? Certain games are just built for extended multiplayer.