I found myself outside a promising-looking pizza joint not long ago and decided to do some impromptu research on my iPhone. The initial Safari search turned up Yelp information on the pizza place, and tapping on those prompted me to download the Yelp app onto my phone for further information.
That turned out to be a mistake.
First, the Yelp app prompted me to adjust a whole slate of permissions on location tracking (sure), whether it could track my browsing for add purposes (no way) and other various settings. Then I had to either log in or sign up with Yelp, and my attempt to use the Sign with Apple feature proved fruitless. (I may have already created a Yelp account many moons ago, but good luck remembering with which email account and what kind of password.) The minutes were ticking by, and I was no closer to solving what seemed like a reasonably simple question: IS THIS PIZZA PLACE ANY GOOD OR NOT?
I deleted Yelp from my iPhone nearly immediately. I did not have any pizza.
It was a rotten experience, but it was fairly typical of a frustrating number of mobile apps these days, which seem more concerned with getting their hooks into you then helping you with the task at hand. Increasingly, it feels like the goals of app users and app makers are more at odds than ever. We want to use an app to take care of a specific taks or two and the person making the app seems to want to make that software so indispensable that you're never supposed to log out of the app. The irony, of course, is that approach is the quickest way to get me to yank an app right off my iPhone.
Back in the good old App Store days
It hasn't always been like this. I've been reviewing mobile apps since Apple first started allowing them on the iPhone in 2008. And in those early days, the limitations on just what you could do with your smartphone seemed to keep things more focused. You wanted an app to help you manage to-dos or see an extended weather forcast or look up movie casts, well, that's what you got.
The advent of faster 4G networks a decade ago expanded the power of apps considerably. Now your phone could download enough data to stream things or share videos or even multitask. It was a welcome improvement, but I think it introduced a kind of feature creep that's overtaken the app experience these days.
I'm of the theory that an app works best when it's available right when you need it with the available information you're looking for, and then it disappears until you need it again. The Premier League app is an excellent example of this — fire it up on game day, and the scores of matches appear right away, along with whatever channel or streaming service is carrying the match in my area. If I want to drill down, I can, but the most relevant information is put right up front. It's the exact opposite of my recent experience with Yelp.
Notifications, subscriptions and other annoyances
Modern-day apps seem to operate under the theory that the moment you close out the app, you may never launch it again. So there's a tendency toward feature bloat, under the apparent theory that if there's one part of an app that a particular user doesn't find essential, then by God, there will be dozens of other options that might grab their attention. It also helps explain another major irritation of mine with many of todays apps — the near constant stream of notifications meant to get you to constantly engage with an app.
A little while back, i helped edit a piece on a new AI-powered background editing tool for Instagram that required me to download the app to my iPhone so I could test out the feature. I left Instagram on there after I was done, and in the ensuing two weeks, Instagram has been pinging my phone like a first date desperate to make sure we go out again.
According to the notifications tracing tool in iOS, only the Fitness app (which checks in with me to make sure I'm meeting my Move goal) pings me more than Instagram. I get fewer notifications from Overcast (which alerts me when there's a new podcast episode ready to listen to) and Google Calendar (which alerts me to upcoming meetings) send me more notifications. And I'd argue those are a little bit more vital than someone I barely know posting a new Instagram story.
I have one other complaint with the current state of mobile apps, and it involves the subscription-based pricing that's in favor today. I certainly think app makers deserve to make money, and if subscriptions are the best way to do it, then so be it. But the risk to that approach is the same one facing streaming services — you wind up with so many recurring subscriptions to manage, you become wary of paying up for more. And you might even start shedding the subscriptions that you do have.
Put another way, mobile apps have gone from a fun way to extend your phone's functionality to attention-seeking clutter that's becoming frustrating to use and manage. These days, I find myself mainly relying on my iPhone's built-in apps, which at least seem to be designed with some degree of interactivity in mind. I've turn to third-party apps for sports scores, podcasts and the occasional health and fitness task, but that's about it.
Mobile apps outlook
One or two solid downloads in the coming year could turn my attitude about mobile apps around. And frankly, I hope it does. A good mobile app is a joy to use, but I haven't found too much of that on my phone as of late.
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Philip Michaels is a Managing Editor at Tom's Guide. He's been covering personal technology since 1999 and was in the building when Steve Jobs showed off the iPhone for the first time. He's been evaluating smartphones since that first iPhone debuted in 2007, and he's been following phone carriers and smartphone plans since 2015. He has strong opinions about Apple, the Oakland Athletics, old movies and proper butchery techniques. Follow him at @PhilipMichaels.