When Will Apple Loosen Its Grip on iOS?

As much as I love my iPad, there are a few things about it that feel like a blast from the past. I’ve harked on about the iOS interface before, but right now I’m talking about the inability to set a default application for a certain task. We’ve been looking at alternative browsers lately, and there are plenty of other applications that I’m sure everyone wished they could set as a default to avoid Apple’s offering.

Will Apple ever loosen up? Here’s how they should, and whether they will.

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How This Works on the Mac

You can already change default applications on OS X. I’ve done this for just about every program, from opening email with Sparrow to browsing with Chrome (which might change, but that’s besides the point) to subscribing to RSS feeds with Reeder and opening images in Pixelmator. Changing each of these ranged from incredibly easy (going into preferences) to a little bit of a pain (changing from Preview to Pixelmator).

I maybe have too many browsers installed.

Maybe I have too many browsers installed.

In most cases this sort of thing can be accessed straight through a Preferences menu. Launch Safari, open Preferences, and right there you can change your default browser to something else. Same thing with RSS feeds. Email is managed through Apple’s default Mail.app in a similar manner.

Ah, that's better. Not that Mail.app and Safari should count as RSS readers.

Ah, that's better. Not that Mail.app and Safari should count as RSS readers.

The annoying part came with opening PNG files with Pixelmator instead of Preview. Instead of offering an easy alternative, the only way that I could find to make Pixelmator the default application for opening those images was to find a PNG file, choose ‘Get Info’, and change the default application from there. Frustrating, but not impossible.

Point is, this is possible on the Mac.

Why It Should Happen on iOS as Well

We’re starting to see more and more alternative applications for the iPad. Instead of browsing with Mobile Safari, for example, someone could choose to use Sleipnir, or Grazing, or iCab Mobile. Gmail finally has a (barely) native application, and the Sparrow developers are bringing their excellent email application to iOS. The list goes on and on, and yet I’m still left with so much friction as I try to open a link or send an email.

Try tapping on a link in an application. Sure, most of the time it will launch with an in-app browser, but there’s at least the option to open it up with Safari. A link that you tap on in Mail.app is going to open in Safari right away. Now all of the sudden I have Grazing filled with the things that I was checking before while Safari holds that just-opened link. Instead of trying to remember where each one is or copying and pasting the link itself, it’s just easier to stick with Safari even if I prefer another application.

This is the epitome of frustration. Now I’m left with two applications that do essentially the same thing but I don’t have a real choice of which one to use. The system assumes that I’ll want to use the built-in applications, and doesn’t care that I might loathe Mail.app.

How This Could Change

Look, if Apple can find a way to make this work on the Mac I don’t see any reason for why they can’t get it to work on iOS. Sure, the entire point is that iOS ships with all of the applications that you need (or that’s the idea, anyway) but if people didn’t prefer other applications they wouldn’t download them. I have made it clear through my purchase of an alternative browser that I am dissatisfied with Mobile Safari; why are you forcing me to use it?

Changing this could be as easy as having a new element in the Settings app. Call it ‘defaults’ divide by category, do whatever you need to do, but find a way to give ‘power’ users the option to choose which application they would like to use. Sure, going through the Settings might be a pain, but I would gladly poke around there for a few minutes to get my iPad to work the way that I like.

Apple has no real, vested interest in forcing you to use their applications. There are no ads. Most of the time they’re free; if they aren’t, it’s clear that you wanted to download them in the first place. The only thing Apple is getting from forcing me to use Mail.app is a frustrated user.

Will it Happen?

I’m inclined to think that this will be changing, if not in the near future then with iOS 6. With OS X and iOS burning a path towards convergence, it’s going to be on Apple to give users some more options with iOS. Apple can’t get away with keeping Safari the only option for a default browser with OS X, and they’re going to see that this is no longer an option on iOS either.

It’s clear that they’re headed this way in the first place. In the beginning (which I definitely did not just say in a booming voice) Apple wouldn’t even allow applications that they deemed to compete with their own apps. As alternative browsers and email clients become more common, the next logical step is allowing the user to have a say in how iOS works for them.