When the iPhone launched, and for the first versions of the iOS SDK, an app was a bundle, a directory with metadata if you will, with the suffix .app. System- and 3rd party apps were all contained in each bundle. No app was in multiple bundles, and no bundle was multiple apps.
Already I’m simplifying, because there was one more thing to the app bundle: optionally, you could add a settings bundle, which would load into Settings.app and allow the user to change the settings from your app, from outside your app.
Since then, things have become more complicated. To start with, you had universal apps: it was still an app, but now it had the complexity of targetting two platforms, the iPhone and the iPad.
Following that, we got extensions, which could (and in my opinion should) be seen as apps in their own right: little plugins, if you will, to the share panel, to the today panel, to the keyboard panel, and to the photo editor. Many apps that used to be limited to living in their own app, now live more hosted in other apps than in their own. But still they are packaged together with “the app”. And sold together. Being in the same bundle you cannot delete one without the other also being deleted.
With the Apple Watch, we get three more extensions: glance, notification (with short glance and long glance), and the watch app. These are supposed to provide windows into your app, but I think that again we will find that for many apps, this is more the app and the main iOS app is. And again, if you’ll delete the main app, these extensions will also disappear from your Apple Watch.
I’m working on a hobby project at the moment, and I think it’s a good illustration of what is bundled with the app now:
- It has the app, that is a little bit different depending on what size of a screen its running on
- It has a settings bundle
- It has a share extension so that you can share items with it
- It has a today extension so you can see what has changed since last you logged into the app
- It has a notification extension to notify you when new stuff you could be interested in has happened, together with a long glance and a short glance
- It has a glance that doubles the today extension for functionality
- It has an Apple Watch app where you can do the basics of the iOS app Oh, and I should probably add that the functionality of the app isn’t all that advanced. But this only goes to show how many aspects to this app will be here. For my app, it fits well with the iOS app being the centerpiece which the extensions interact with. But what if you’re a storage container like Dropbox? What it you’re a timetracker? What if you’re a health tracker? What if you’re a currency converter? For all these things, the main app in most cases becomes a sidekick that can give you a more advanced look into your data, but which you’ll probably interact with very little compared to the extensions.
What worries me the most is that the main app is required. And if it’s not the centerpiece, then people would not be sure why they would pay for it. That’s very different to me from if people could buy a kick-ass keyboard, share extension, photo filter, Apple Watch app or similar on its own.
The other thing that worries me is what will pay for all these extensions. As you could see from my hobby project, it’s a whole lot of extra work that comes on top, and that honestly is more or less a basic requirement. If my app were a paid app, I don’t think people would accept an in-app purchase to allow the Apple Watch extensions to be made available. I don’t even think Apple would allow me to submit an app with three extensions that by default don’t do anything. And making something that doesn’t do much and then open up functionality seems like something that would be just as bad. Also, showing ads on this little constrained device would probably not sit right with many people as well: you’ve just spent, let’s say $500 on this piece of jewelry, and now it’s plastered with ads most of the time. Nope, that’s no good.
I think the “everything is in the ‘app’ bundle” approach we have now does a lot to cement, or even make worse, the hard situation for people to make money of their apps alone, and I really think this is unfortunate. I would love for this ecosystem to become something people can make a good living of by making good things. If people can make a living selling good wax candles, why should they not be able to make a living selling great digital tools? For now, the only good business I know is for the wax candeleer to use the apps as an entry into his candle-shop to sell more, and perhaps more custom, wax cendles.