July 3, 2013

Where’s the inter-app-erability?

The Loop > Magazine > Issue 5

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By Bryan Irace

Having now existed for over four years, the App Store impresses not only with revenue numbers and download statistics, but also by having turned the act of installing software into something fun and easy. It’s something even the most casual smartphone and tablet user feels comfortable doing. As the number of apps and services that an iOS user engages with increases, it’s only natural for developers and users alike to seek integration across these various services. While many apps already integrate nicely with one another, let’s discuss the shortcomings that exist today and how app interoperability could potentially be improved going forward.

Most of the best iOS applications are not completely standalone, but rather pull data in from external sources or provide the option to share outwards. Timehop is a great example of the former. A charming application that helps you reminisce about experiences you may have forgotten, Timehop resurfaces photos, tweets, Foursquare checkins, and other types of data from years past. The value that Timehop delivers correlates directly to the quality and quantity of data that the user provides it with. In terms of sharing outwards, a photo editing application will generally be more appealing to users if it offers an easy way to post to their photo sharing services of choice.

Sadly, the ease with which you can allow one application to integrate with another on your behalf can vary dramatically. Granting access to your Facebook or Twitter data is trivial, as Apple has selectively chosen to deeply incorporate these credentials at the OS level. For other services such as Foursquare or Evernote, this is not the case.

While many of your favorite services likely provide APIs that developers can connect their apps to, there’s a significant time cost in doing so. It’s simply impractical for a developer to manually integrate with the growing number of services that their users may be interested in. Additionally, there are UI considerations when presenting the user with the ability to authenticate with or share to a third-party service. If you were to build a new camera application today, think about how many potential destinations (Flickr, Instagram, etc.) you would have to support. This can result in a large amount of duplicated effort across the developer community.

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