Alpha Apps: The Smartphone Future No One Is Talking About

Users. Developers. Everybody. The design of Apple’s new Extensions will change the way we all use apps.

Today, our apps are basically self-contained castles. Walled off from every other app, you have to open Google Maps to find restaurants in your area, then you have to open up Yelp to search its reviews, and then you have to load Safari to search what Kow Soy is because everybody on Yelp says you just have to order it.

But this method is inefficient. In response, Apple debuted a new feature that will appear in their new iPhone/iPad software, iOS 8. They’re called Extensions. And what they do is allow you to use apps within apps, without having to multitask your way back and forth.

This might sound like a small detail—another feature that won’t really change anything. I disagree. I believe that because Apple is so influential in the app space—developers tend to make apps for iOS first and Android second—Extensions will shape the way we use our phones and developers create our apps into the future. Namely, most of us will begin using just a few apps on our phones. Alpha Apps, if you will. And these apps will be designed to contain other apps.

Meanwhile, the Internet of Apps—an idea where we surf from app to app as lazily as browsing the web—will never come to be.

How It Works

An extension can allow you to pin a recipe to your Pinterest page from an unrelated cooking app. An extension can allow Bing to translate a Russian menu from inside Safari. Or an extension can even enable you to use a third-party photo editing tool within Apple’s Camera app. Extensions are kind of like ordering delivery rather than going to a restaurant. You don’t have to move. What you’re looking for comes to you.

Extensions appear in a menu, using their respective app icons.

This is different than how a lot of Apple's Silicon Valley peers have approached the problem of hopping around apps. Before yesterday, when Apple introduced extensions at WWDC, all of the approaches were basically doing the same thing. They were linking our apps to one another, just like hyperlinks connect pages of the web. You’d constantly leave an app to go to another app.

Google has recently introduced a clever trick to promote this linking, and Facebook released an open standard called App Links to do the same thing. (In fact, even Apple has already had such an app-to-app linking standard built into iOS.)

Google handles app-to-app linking: "Get an uber" shoots you right to the uber app.

Taking the app linking model to its logical conclusion, a world ruled by app links would more or less recreate the web itself. We’d hop from app to app to app, mindlessly surfing all along the way. And indeed, when I talked to Simon Khalaf , CEO of Flurry last month—the world’s largest app analytics firm, whose software is probably installed on between 7 and 10 apps on the phone you're using today—he believed that this app-to-app hopping was very much the direction that apps were going. He went so far as to call this world "the Internet of Apps."

A Case of Misdirection

Now, there are practical reasons the Internet of Apps is a flawed idea! Namely, how can we be linked to content inside an app that we don’t even have downloaded yet? (What happens in this case is that the user gets stuck in an App Store, prompted to download software when they’re just looking to read a news story or something.)

But realize, Google and Facebook have both been charging forward with the Internet of Apps in mind, building the infrastructure and design cues to make it more feasible, enabling users to hop around apps easily. Smelling money in the air, Google has even started indexing app-to-app links for their search technologies, so they could crawl and categorize these app links just like they crawl web links. Given more time, it's quite possible that Google, Facebook, and Apple, working toward a common cause, could have made app linking work as well as hyperlinking works on the web. Maybe they could have developed a way to use apps without formally downloading them, for instance, preloading them in the background of your operating system in a way that didn't clutter your phone, waste your time, or put you at a security risk.

But now that Apple’s Extensions exist, they'll divert the industry from solving the fundamental UX problems that would be needed to create a true Internet of Apps. Apple has more or less decreed that the way users will juggle multiple apps won’t be app linking. Instead, their tacit thesis seems to be that a few core apps—Alpha Apps—will be the gatekeepers to do everything on your phone, while every other app plays a small supporting role. In other words, every silly photo filtering app may be swallowed alive by an Instagram, which could become the center of all photo apps.

Here, third-party photo editing software runs within Apple's photo app.

In the Extensions scenario, the tiny utility apps we've known for so long may become mere accessories to the power players, never actually opened by anyone, but used by some of the most popular apps in the world with frequency. They’ll become what the tech world has called "plug-ins," or even, yes, "extensions"—the Photoshop filters and the Chrome ad blockers of the app world. One could imagine that these apps wouldn’t even have a purpose on your homescreen—they could live only within the extensions sub menu itself.

Because Apple has so much power in the world of apps—due to the fact that their iOS platform is generally more profitable for developers than Android, so developers tend to build for iOS first and Android second—it seems most likely that developers will start designing their apps around Extensions rather than app links. How the economics will work out for developers whose apps are used through other apps is still a bit unclear. But as a result, Google’s Android platform will likely follow Apple’s iOS Extensions lead, building out a similar app-wrapping-around-an-app interface.

And that whole Internet of Apps thing? It will never gain enough momentum to happen. Instead, we'll enter the era of Alpha Apps, and they'll roll themselves around everything else.

Footnote: Many have noted that Google's Intents platform is very similar to Apple's Extensions. And while they do share a lot of technological functionality—including app wrapping—Apple’s vision of dynamic interactions between apps is something that neither Google, nor Android app developers have promoted or implemented. Android’s intents are more focused on quickly sharing content via another app, interacting with a core service/utility like Gmail or the system camera, or shooting a file over to another app (which often takes, and leaves, you in another app entirely). iOS even works like this right now, but in a much more limited, controlled capacity. What Apple is trying to bring to the table with Extensions is not a new technology, but a new idea for how this technology can be used.

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  • Yawn. More Apple non-news.

    Click a link on your iPad app and watch the browser open. Now go back. Whooopsie! Now try it on my Nexus 7. Presto... the browser's tab closes and I am returned to the app from whence I started.

    Go stand in line for your iPhone 6. Or just pick up a used Galaxy 3 and amaze the herd!

  • What about OTT messaging as the killer Alpha app? I see it as the browser, the notification center, the alpha app in one, with a social layer within it. Perhaps OTT will be the home screen of the future.

  • Interesting but I think you've missed another scenario: the post-appstores era, where mobile WEB apps would be accessible in a tap on the open web (not the sticking-plaster "app links" approach advertised at F8). One day, browsers will be seamlessly embedded into the OS of any connected device, meaning you won't have to "open" a dedicated browser to access the internet, the browser will be always ON, invisible, connecting you in a frictionless way to the cloud, with a native-like / smooth execution layer rendering dynamic content. Exciting times ahead ;-) We're paving the way with, our mobile WEB app to create... mobile web apps.

  • Chris Cabell

    Blah Blah. I'm sure you were one of the guys that was spouting off about native mobile being dead with the launch of HTML5. There is on post-appstore era, at lest not in the foreseeable future. It may change, morph and become more integrated... But the only people preaching about the demise of native apps are people who are un-informed, and people who make web apps.

  • Two problems with this post: Android has had this feature for a while. Apps can plug in to system services like Share etc and its pretty rare that an app doesn't, there are even third party apps like Muzei etc that other apps extend. Also the iOS sytem does not allow 3rd party apps to become homes for extensions. They can only connect to system supplied extension points.

  • Gary Harrison

    ... Apple's new Home Kit and Health Kit apps could be seen as early trial versions of this new app model.

  • Gary Harrison

    ... Thinking about this some more: The intention here is to eradicate the problem of a fragmented user experience - to achieve this the whole GUI needs to follow the form of the "Alpha App" with improved functionality provided via desirable plug-in apps. As a final logical conclusion of this thesis, all "Alpha Apps" should be designed by Apple (depending on the device) in order to follow the same familiar GUI as the host OS. Most interestingly, isn't this essentially what Jony Ive took the first steps towards creating with the attempt at a single unified GUI experience for iOS 7 last year. Of course at the time this didn't provide a seamless GUI across the whole device because of naturally stylistic differences with third party apps - with "Alpha Apps" you can now see how they will tackle this in time to provide the best holistic unified experience for Apple users.

  • Gary Harrison

    This is a subject very close to my heart. I'm a designer for a smart home installation company and for years we've recognised that there were many UX issues surrounding the use of apps. In 2010 we started to develop our own software solution, which we called MeSh, to tackle this issue with a focus on the smarthome entertainment environment - modestly preempting Apple's own work with "extensibility" and "Homekit". As part of this ongoing research we've made some fantastic discoveries about the app experience and use of tablets as home control devices in general. Coincidentally I did write a small news article trying to draw parrallels with what Jony Ive had done to create a unified GUI and user experience with iOS 7 (which is of course the inception of the idea behind app extensibility), and what we've done with our MeSh solution to eliminate a fragmented dip-in, dip-out experience for our customers, this time last year:

  • The concept of opening an app from an app (including transfer of the relevant piece of information) exists in Android for a while now. For Android users, apps are not self-contained castles....

  • hurricanejamesesq

    Extensions are essentially the same thing as Android's Intents. Paradigm wise, they are not new. Alpha apps did not come to Android (at least not that I have noticed, I still use Google Maps and Yelp separately as well as together). It seems unlikely they will happen on Apple. Though perhaps now that Apple designers have access to the concept, maybe we can get some really well designed interactions.

  • Have you see an example of Google Intents that actually suck in the UI of another app (rather than just handling a specific function like Pinning something--as Extensions also do--or linking out to another app)?

    That's the difference we see here--Apple demoing this sort of interaction model on stage where apps can actually suck in and wrap around other apps in a mix of form and function.

    Functionally, we're splitting hairs. In terms of user experience, though, I think Apple's model is quite different.

  • Timo Ohr

    Have you actually used an Android phone before?

    When you click on a mail button in an app, it opens the compose screen of your favourite mail app and returns you to your app after sending. If you want take a photo within another app, it opens the camera screen of your favourite camera app and returns to your app with the taken photo. If you want to schedule an event or add a contact, it shows the appropriate screens of whatever app you use for events or contacts.

    The thing is, Android doesn't just link out to other apps like iOS currently does, leaving you stranded in the other app. It allows apps to integrate entire screens and workflows of other apps right within your app. Everything you can do with Extensions you can already do today with Intents, including all of the examples you mentioned.

    iOS Extensions are a carbon copy of what Android has been doing successfully for 6 years now. Saying that Google is following Apples lead here is mind boggingly ignorant.