• Hey Apple: Stop Crippling Third Party Apps

    Hey, Apple: it's time to stop crippling third party apps.

    It's something I've been thinking about for a few days now. It's nothing new, and people have been talking about it ever since great replacements for average default apps have been appearing on the App Store: Sparrow+ is a jailbreak tweak that makes Sparrow the default iOS email client, and there's a similar thing to make Chrome replace Safari as your default browser. Even Gruber has touched on the topic a few times, saying there's no reason you shouldn't be able to set third-party apps as the default.

    But the last week has really cemented the issue in my mind, all because a few good apps have been cut off at the knees.

    A little backstory: with iOS 6, Apple removed the official YouTube app that had been in iOS since day one. That's fine, because because Google will continue to supply content to that app for those that haven't upgraded or have older hardware and for those that have already upgraded to iOS 6, there's the official YouTube app available from the App Store, which does a few advantages over the built-in client, one of which is the ability to play content that previously wasn't available in the older app.

    In-between all that, we start to see all of these YouTube clients pop up all over the place. Remy reviewed FoxTube right here on MacTalk, and Tube+ was also another app that also received some pretty good press.

    Jasmine is one such YouTube app. Developed by Jason Morrissey (the same guy behind Alien Blue), it's easy to see why it's been so widely praised: it works with the iPhone 5 straight out of the gate, and features a really nice, polished interfaces with an extremely likeable pull-to-refresh animation. It's an insanely pretty app that deserves all the praise it gets even more so when you consider it's a completely free app.

    But as pretty as Jasmine is, it's crippled from the start by the simple fact it can't be the default handler for YouTube videos. If you tap on a YouTube link from elsewhere in iOS, it won't open Jasmine to play the video for you.

    That might be fine by you, but here's the kicker: if you have the official YouTube app installed from the App Store, tapping YouTube links elsewhere in iOS will open that app but how? Federico Viticci from MacStories did a little digging (scroll all the way to the bottom) and found out that it's iOS itself that detects whether you have the YouTube app installed, translates that YouTube links into an app-specific format, and then passes a special URL to the YouTube app in order to play your video in the YouTube app.

    That doesn't happen with Jasmine, or any other YouTube client you download from the App Store. If you don't have the YouTube app installed, then any YouTube links simply go through to the keeper; in this case, Safari.

    Which is a real pity in my opinion, and a gosh-darn shame, because it means that regardless of how superior they may be (to other apps or even to the official client), regardless of how fantastic they look or how great their pull-to-refresh animations are, third-party replacements for "default" apps will always be one step behind, disadvantaged for the simple fact they can't play videos that were tapped on from within other apps. I say "default" in inverted commas because even though it handles YouTube links in iOS, it's an app just like any other, downloaded from the App Store, just like any other.

    I mean, do you see what the issue is here? The YouTube app which you download from the App Store has a feature that no other app has. Viticci says it's because of some special deal between Google and Apple, which, I'm not sure if you've heard, aren't exactly the best of friends lately. How is Google exempt from the rules when their apps are submitted and sold in exactly the same ways as developers' apps are? How is that fair to third-party developers? Spoiler: it's not.

    And it's not just YouTube apps at a severe disadvantage because of some App Store or iOS hocus-pocus. Apple has now disallowed the use of the pcast:// URL scheme in iOS 6, which was used by a good few podcast apps, including Instacast and Pocket Casts. Opening a pcast:// link on iOS now opens Apple's own Podcasts app, if installed. What happens with YouTube links now also happens with podcasts, only in this case, third-party developers were using it way before Apple was.

    So, what does all this mean? It means something has to change: in the case of YouTube clients, maybe the better solution is for Apple to either open up the special YouTube URL scheme so other apps can take advantage of it, or to close it off from Google to even the playing field. There's no need for Apple to be granting Google any special favours these days.

    The podcasts client fiasco is a little different because the pcast:// URL scheme existed before Apple adopted it as their own, so now third-party clients will have to adopt something else. It sucks a lot for developers of podcast apps, but the point is, Apple has to stop crippling third party apps like this.

    Which brings us back to the bigger picture of default apps; if Apple allowed us to set a default app for YouTube links, then maybe Jasmine (and other similar apps) would be given a chance to truly become the go-to YouTube app on iOS. If Apple allowed us to set a default app for Podcasts, then maybe third-party apps wouldn't have to adopt a new scheme. Same goes for browsers, email clients, and perhaps even maps apps, if and when Google releases their own app for iOS. Apple is already embracing third-party apps in the new Maps app for transit directions, so what's stopping them doing the same for other services, too?

    I hate to mention it, but Android has had this kind of functionality from very early on. Sure, every app can ask you if you want to open Instagram links in Instagram (as opposed to a system-level default), but at least it's there. It works, and you can choose default apps to handle opening links.

    It's time for Apple to stop crippling third party apps, and letting us choose our own third party apps as the default apps for services such as email, maps, or YouTube will go a long way towards that. By ensuing all apps have an even playing field, it means developers aren't disadvantaged from the very start and that means we'll continue to see some truly great apps flourish on the App Store.
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