The Weird Voodoo Necessary To Spawn Great Apps On Your Platform


“Android users don’t buy apps”, people will tell you. I have no idea whether that’s true, but I do know I switched to The Mac in part due to the presence of great apps, apps not present on Windows. I don’t think it’s a stretch to claim that a platform will gain in popularity by virtue of having great apps. Which makes launching new platforms difficult. Inherently, new platforms won’t have many apps at launch and unless some really good ones are written fast, your platform might never take off.

Let’s define a great app as being an app that’s simple, beautiful, solves a problem for you, and is fast and stable.

I like Windows. I’ve used it for a decade. There are window-management features I still miss, having switched. I hope Windows 8 will do great. But I can’t say Windows ever had great apps; Windows had good apps. I particularly miss Directory Opus, an over-the-top-powerful file management application with integrated FTP, regex file renamer and too many nice features to mention. This was a good app, and I would love a Mac version. But it’s not a beautiful app. It’s got an uninspiring icon, the UI is cluttered by default, the bundled icons don’t look good and the app itself is only as pretty as Windows native UI is. But does it matter that an app isnt’ beautiful?

My noodling on the matter says yes. During the formative months or years of a new operating system — case in point, OSX — the apps that come out will generally dicatate what follows for that platform. If a slew of functional, great-looking apps come out, these apps will define where the bar is set. Once the platform, for a variety of reasons including the presence of aforementioned apps becomes popular enough, it will obviously attract a slew of crappy apps as well, sure. But the higher the bar was set initially, the fewer crap apps will follow. There’s simply no need to look beyond that one app that filled a niche.

Back when I was still powerusing Windows, ALT-tabbing and generally working things to my liking, I was surprised at my Mac friends and their utter determination to make sure all their dock icons were pretty. Sure, I can appreciate a good icon design, but an app can be good without a great icon, can’t it? This mac-using-friend-determination went further and involved criticising the lack of native UI in the Firefox browser, an otherwise tech-hipster darling at the time. I couldn’t care less at the time. As Yogi Berra said: if the app is good the app is good. Right?

Right. And also sometimes wrong. Windows has good apps, but few of them are beautiful. That’s how it’s always been. As the PC has grown from its DOS infancy, apps have improved in both features and looks. But Windows itself, although functional, was never particularly beautiful to look at. Almost reflecting this, neither were Windows apps. Still, it was the platform with the most apps by far, probably still is. The downside is that most of them are crap. Google windows video converter and you’ll more results than is funny. How are you going to find the one good one among them?

The Mac, on the other hand, made a clean break with OSX. Apps had to be rewritten from scratch, and the operating system itself had received a “lickable” design — it was very pretty to look at by yesteryears standards. The Mac was in a bad place at the time, marketshare-wise, so the trickle of new OSX-ready apps wasn’t overwhelming. Still, because of the clean break and the presence of a userbase, apps did appear. For some reason, these apps were simple, beautiful and userfriendly. Like the OS. You could think the Mac developers at the time felt their apps should reflect the sense of taste the OS itself exuded. Whatever happened, a philosophy of building the one app to rule each niche seems to have been born at this time. Microsoft never made this clean break with Windows, so there was never an opportunity for developers to stop and rethink their apps, and the standard for “pretty” was never very high. The result is a billion apps that do the same thing, because no developer filled a niche in any significant fashion.

I sound like a long-time Apple lover, which I’m not. I switched to The Mac because of the UNIX commandline. Make no mistake about it, there are things about The Mac Way that I sincerely loathe. OSX Lion, for example, is the worst $29 I’ve spent in years. I’m also firmly entrenched with The Android, the Gmail app and seamless syncing is enough to ensure that.

But thinking about the weird voodoo necessary for a new platform to take off, it’s really hard to get around both the Mac and the iPhones portfolio of apps and the standard they’ve set. While it’s all a bunch of evening noodling and gut-feelings, this all tells me that if you want great apps on your platform, you need to combine a beautiful UI with a clean break. It appears Microsoft may be taking this route. Android take note.

9 thoughts on “The Weird Voodoo Necessary To Spawn Great Apps On Your Platform”

  1. Ulf says:

    I don’t get it. When I work, I work. I don’t spend my time gaping in awe of the pretty UI or cursing at a mediocre one. In fact, I only really notice the UI if it prevents me from working – and then I usually find an alternative, really quick.

    Sure, pretty to look at is all good and fine, but logical structuring of the menus or the ability to customize keyboard shortcuts count a lot more for me.

    For me, the best UI is not the prettiest, but the one you don’t notice. And here, as so many other places, less is more.

    1. Joen says:

      I don’t get it. When I work, I work. I don’t spend my time gaping in awe of the pretty UI or cursing at a mediocre one.

      Oh I’m right there with you. When I work, I work.

      My point in this article is not that an app is inherently better because it is pretty, not at all. In fact, quite often the opposite is true (read The Cupcake Is A Lie, it’s actually an allegory).

      So what is the point, you ask?

      This whole rant was inspired by the use of the term “pride in craftmanship” which was presented as a core design tenet for building Metro style Windows 8 apps.

      I may have noodled on this too much, but I read in to that single term a lot of meaning. Primarily that a good platform doesn’t necessarily have many apps — it has the right apps. You don’t actually need 50 twitter apps. You need one or two great ones. You don’t need 500 video converters, you need only a few that work.

      Windows’ current problem is not that it doesn’t have enough apps. It’s that — in a lot of app niches, HTML/CSS IDEs for example — it doesn’t have the right apps. You can dabble in Dreamweaver, WebMatrix, Komodo Edit, Notepad++, Webstorm, a billion others. On the mac you have only a few: Espresso and Coda. But those are the right apps.

      But what does “pretty” have to do with getting the right apps you insist on asking? Well, what I’m speculating in this article is that if the OS is pretty, and if the flagship apps are pretty, it will suggest the standard for apps to come, it will suggest you develop with a “pride in craftmanship”, if you will. The result will hopefully be apps that are functional, userfriendly, simple, and pretty. A video converter built with pride in craftmanship might in fact be so good that it wards off bad apps, at least for a while, and when those bad apps arrive, the position will be filled by the good app.

    2. Joen says:

      Take the Gmail app for Android, for instance, it’s so awesome it makes it unlikely that I’ll ever switch. Beautiful, simple, functional. The GPS navigation is also fantastic. These apps set the standard for those niches on the Android.

      But the Android OS hasn’t been “pretty” until Honeycomb, and even Honeycomb has some rough edges. One effect of this, I feel, is that apps on the Android aren’t as pretty as they could be. As such, Google has to blaze its own trail curating the very best Android apps.

  2. Ulf says:

    Totally with you in that I’d rather have “the right app” vs a bazillion mediocre ones – and I’m pretty sure that MS are doing the right thing with win8 (although they can still mess the good intentions up).
    I’d just rather have the pride in craftsmanship apply to the structure and functionality of the app rather than having an icon that looks amazing in 512×512.

    But I realize now that that’s not what you were saying, anyways.

    (oh, and I read “core design telnet”, which seemed pretty oldschool to me 🙂 )

    1. Joen says:

      I’d just rather have the pride in craftsmanship apply to the structure and functionality of the app rather than having an icon that looks amazing in 512×512.

      Exactly. I highlighted those icons because, while pretty, they were almost ridiculous.

      (oh, and I read “core design telnet”, which seemed pretty oldschool to me )

      HIGH FIVE!

      Makes me want to play MUDs again!

  3. matthew says:

    Its about the environment you work in, just like a decent desk and office may not itself be productive or inspirational to work you can be damn sure it helps.
    I dont understand how those that argue otherwise don’t see this.

  4. matthew says:

    It also shows an attention to detail which often spreads through out the rest of the app

  5. Michael says:

    Amazon just came out with a tablet, due out in stores soon. Lauded as the first true threat to Apples large market share of the tablet/app industry. But I don’t see how that could be unless it has some crazy awesome apps; and since its like a kindle on steroids or something I wonder what apps would be on this too. Do they just make a bunch to release with the product? is this a PC tablet with window dressing?
    I think the apps are what make this type of product. You and I might not be dazzled by beauty anymore, as we’re jaded users. But functionality has never been the final ingredient for a product to become a pop icon. People like robots with lights and noise. think R2-D2.

    1. Joen says:


      The Kindle Fire tablet uses a version of Android at its base, so it’ll actually be able to run Android apps. That means Angry Birds is on the Kindle Fire already. It’s actually a pretty smart move — they’ve distanced themselves thoroughly from Android to the point people are unlikely to know it, but they still have a critical mass of apps at launch.

      People like robots with lights and noise. think R2-D2.

      Exactly right. And I think the Kindle Fire looks good. If you’re in to the whole Amazon ecosystem — buy their movies, rent their TV shows — this is a good deal. And it’s cheap!

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