Apps from Hell

August 11th 2016, 01:27 | Written by Konstantin Koll

I don't know if other software companies these days suffer from terminal-stage capitalism, if dumbed-down America has reached Silicon Valley, or if Germany's “Generation Pisa” is now old enough to write software—but there's something seriously wrong with the entire industry!

Please note that some screenshots in this article have been heavily edited for privacy reasons.

myPANTONE (now PANTONE Studio)

While setting up my shiny new iPhone SE, I've noted that software quality is down the drain. A prime example for starters is the myPANTONE app, which is now called “PANTONE Studio” after an update. PANTONE is an American company known for its color matching system that is widely used in graphics and printing. I don't do anything with color matching, but purchased the myPANTONE app for a whopping 10€ because of its beautiful color fan decks that might have served well in the color picking dialog of Flightmap. We've opted for a different style of color picker later, but I've still kept the app on my iPhone as a toy and an example for really beautiful Skeuomorphism.

One week ago, PANTONE has decided to update the myPANTONE app to a whole new product, which is now called “PANTONE Studio”. The new app is free to download, but users have to pay a monthly subscription fee of $7 or so to use the software, whereas myPANTONE cost me 10€ once. This business model is called “software as a service”.

You cannot imagine the user ratings in the App Store after PANTONE Studio got published: remember that you cannot downgrade iOS apps, and many people have configured their iPhones to automatically download all software updates (which is grossly negligent, by the way). This means that people literally woke up to find that their trusted app has become useless overnight—unless they pay the hefty subscription fee!

PANTONE has essentially breached the contract with their paying cutsomers, as people trusted to be able to use the software indefinately after they've paid the initial 10€. I just ask my self what the managers at PANTONE were thinking? That people would love to pay a monthly subscription after they had already paid, eager for “additional content”? Or didn't anybody think about existing customers? Both options are equally bad. The wise decision would have been to discontinue myPANTONE (only existing customers would still be able to download the app), and introduce PANTONE Studio as a whole new product.

PANTONE has reacted by publishing a letter, but still didn't understand that it breached the contract with their customers: they just offered a 50% discount on the new subscription (still dollar signs in your eyes for monthly revenues, huh). Only after customers were even more enraged did PANTONE give in a few days later and waive the subscription fee to existing customers. As of this writing, the app got updated and is still down to a single star rating in the German App Store with two out of two customers complaining (titled “Unverschämt!!” and “Abzocke”).

Regardless of payments and subscriptions, I would not get my beautiful color fan deck back in PANTONE Studio, but only a boring app with ugly Flat Design.

This whole case is a prime example why people do not like the “software as a service” model at all. Only software that users can install whenever they please from a DVD or their own personal download archive is something they truly own (as our customers are able to do with both Flightmap and liquidFOLDERS).

App Admin

I'm just so grateful for Team Pangu's jailbreak for my iPhone SE! There's a tweak called “App Admin” on Cydia that plugs into the App Store and allows you to download any version of an app. It can also prevent any updates on a per-app basis. So if PANTONE Studio has taken you by surprise, use it to downgrade to the old myPANTONE! Jailbreaking your iPhone and using this tweak are essential tools for digital self-defence these days.

On a sidenote, I've discovered yesterday that there are actually old versions of “Labelbox” with a beautiful skeuomorphic wood design (the app lets you decorate your photos with labels before uploading them to Instagram). I have only known the new Flat Design version of this app because I was late to the party, but have downgraded to version 1.6.2 now. I'll definately use Labelbox much more often in the future!

Shazam

The next app from hell is Shazam. I'm not really too much into music, but every once in a while I hear a song at a party or a shop that I like. Shazam records the audio, sends it to a server, and tells me which song is playing right now. The song (now called a “Shazam”) is added to a list, and when I get home I look it up on YouTube and decide if I buy it from Amazon or not. This works surprisingly well for me.

I've been playing around with Shazam the other day, and found out that I am actually following five artists! I am not talking about the list of my “Shazams” which I regulary prune, but obviously the app works like a social network that automatically adds me as a follower to the artists that I've “shazamed”. The punch line is that I can only stop this when I create an account: only then can I unfollow artists (which I didn't follow willingly in the first place). No you morons, I will not create an account! I want a simple tool to tell me which song is playing, not another bloated app with a crappy social network!

I have rediscovered “SoundHound ∞” as a replacement app, and use App Admin to download version 5.3.3 that I've used in the past. An update two years ago made it near-useless (they've also added ads, suggestions, Flat Design and other nuisances). However, with App Admin I was able to recover the version I've bought three years ago. A very nice features is to peek at what other users near me are listening to right now—in a very unobstrusive way, I just have to tap the globe when I choose to!

Snapchat

Speaking of ads, I've recently started to use Snapchat. This app seems to be designed by madmen who throw everything regarding good UI design out of the window, but what is much more appalling are the ads or “suggested” stories. I perfectly understand that Snapchat is a free, as in ad-financed, service. The suggestions in Snapchat, however, are extremely obstrusive and badly chosen. As a 37 year old male, I couldn't care less if “Mom & son become lovers and risk jail”, “What it's really like to have inverted nipples”, what “17 things girls with big butts think are fake”, and I know that Suicide Squad is probably a bad movie I won't bother to watch. Taking the first three into account, I don't think I even want to know what “Poppin' Wheelies in the Wild West” is about…

I rarely use Snapchat, but these suggestions really take it to the next level and are not even safe to view at work! Who creates such ads? Who pays money to advertise this shit (and I've read somewhere that being featured on Snapchat costs $100k and more)? Who is interested in such topics, at least outside a trailer park?

Facebook and Instagram

I've just planned to write a short paragraph on the suggestions of Facebook and Instagram: I'm fed up with Instagram suggesting me to follow people I've never met in my life! I can tap away the suggestions, but every few days they reappear. What's the rationale behind this? Does Instagram really think I'll like those suggestions after I've tapped them away 300 times before? This bloat clutters up the screen and interrupts the normal flow with the app.

Facebook is even better: I've quickly scrolled through the entire list of friend suggestions now. There are only three people that make sense: one guy I've interacted with but don't want to be friends with anymore, and two students of mine where it would be highly inappropriate to send a friend request (I'm their professor, you know). All other suggestions are crap—Facebook even suggests someone with no friends in common!

Now, as if I had asked for it, Instagram rolled out their new feed algorithm to my account. For those of you who have never heard about this, Instagram used to sort the pictures people see strictly chronologically. That was a big part of Instagram's appeal: it was simple and easy to understand. Kevin Systrom, the founder of Instagram, said in an interview that people miss about 70% of posts in their feeds, so Instagram introduces an algorithm to sort the pictures in a different way.

I can now say first-hand that this algorithm is shit: the sorting has got nothing to do with what I really like to see, and it makes Instagram very hard to use: pictures of my friends are completely out of order, like a video from a concert at a music festival, then a picture of them in their car, followed by a photo of them in their tents. The Instagram algorithm works like crap!

I also dare to publically call out Kevin Systrom a liar: I have never really missed any posts on Instagram, and lots of comments in the App Store suggest that others haven't either. It used to be so simple: you wake up in the morning, scroll down your Instagram feed until you've reached yesterday's posts, and see all new photos and videos on your way down. It is now that I miss people's posts because my feed is sorted completely erratic! I believe Kevin's explanation is a lie into his community's face. I don't know the rationale behind this, but it is probably to force-feed more lucrative ads.

As sorting is done server-side, downloading an older version with App Admin doesn't help. However, you'll find the tweak “Chronofeed” on Cydia which rearranges your feed chronologically as you scroll down. You'll have to get used to it, but it's much better then Instagram's crap algorithm. Oh, and it seems to get rid of the ads, too!

Siri suggestions

So what's wrong with suggestions? Isn't it great when users have less work to do, and the computer or smartphone does it all? No—in fact, suggestions make daily tasks much harder. Let's look at a simple example: “Siri suggestions” in iOS. You can enable a widget where Spotlight suggests contacts and apps that iOS thinks you might want to open next. There's some artificial intelligence in iOS that tracks your activity and determines these lists every time you open Spotlight. The icons change each time.

Now think for yourself: based on usage statistics, which apps should be suggested? The one just closed? Could be a hit, because the user might want to return there. But maybe the user is finished with this app, so it might be the worst pick.

The point is, life is far too complex for any assistant to accurately pick suggestions! This is true for all sorts of things: apps and contacts, friends you might want to follow on Instagram or add on Facebook, book suggestions on Amazon, and even the infamous “related pins” on Pinterest that litter your feed with junk. Almost every app these days insults me by suggesting crap as if I was too stupid to handle things myself!

We vow to never add suggestions to Flightmap and liquidFOLDERS because of these principal shortcomings. The only exception are well-established MRU lists, such as the most recently opened files or used search terms.

Facebook Messenger

If you know me, then you've probably guessed that I've saved the best for last—this time it's the Facebook Messenger. The first screenshot shows an older version of Messenger, and it's just like you expect a messaging app to be: a list of all active conversations. Note that my friend Hans (name has been changed) is on top of that list, because we just chatted 16 minutes ago.

The next screenshot is after an update. What has happened? Right, it's another app directly from hell! The list is now bloated with things nobody has asked for: the first three active conversations are on top, then comes a section with “favorite” people (now, I didn't pick them, an algorithm chose those people—and boy has it failed at that), followed by random people who are online right now, and then the remaining active conversations.

Who invented this? Who has coded this completely counter-intuitive bullshit? Who thought this was a good idea? Who signed off on this? Needless to say, the ratings in the App Store have plummeted to a measly single star. I had my conversations perfectly sorted by date, moving finished ones to my archive. Now Facebook thinks it knows better how to sort my stuff, interrupts my list with useless “favorite people” (I would be happy if Facebook would honor my “Close Friends” list), then some random people, and at last the remaining messages. Also note that my friend Hans appears three times here!

Early versions of the Facebook app had the ability to pin people on the right-side chat bar. This doesn't work anymore (I'm stuck with the same three people ever since), though it made perfect sense: the user can choose the friends that he's close to, being in control all the time. This perfectly fine mechanics have been thrown away to make room for some bullshit algorithm. Why? What's the benefit for Facebook? Surely the new method consumes a lot more server time. As I've stated above, algorithms fail badly at everyday life, and people picked by the user himself offer so much more data value? What's the rationale behind all this? Needless to say I've used App Admin to downgrade to version 72, the last one with a proper list.

“It's not about the actual changes, people just hate change itself.”

It's far too easy to shrug off my article and any customer complaints by saying that they are not about the actual changes, but people just hate change itself. That's marketing bullshit! If you hear someone saying this, punch him in the face before he can do even more damage!

It all comes down to perspective and the metrices used to measure how content your users are. Will I stop using Instagram? Of course not, my friends are still posting there, and I want to be in the loop. Will I stop using the Facebook Messenger? No, I need it to communicate with people. And that's the point: I need the app, but I don't like it, let alone love it, anymore. I'll still use it for some time to come (so analytics don't change), but as soon as a rivaling product gains traction, users will be more than happy to jump ship!

You don't believe me? Here's an example. About 10 years ago, Facebook was hardly known in Germany. Instead a social network presenting itself under the three brands “StudiVZ” (for college students), “MeinVZ” (for other adults) and “SchülerVZ” (for high school students) ruled the landscape of social media here. Though they were technologically inferior Facebook clones, they were highly popular. Over time, however, the VZ social networks introduced changes that were met with harsh criticism, and even started to censor content. Did people continue to use them? Of couse. But when people learned about Facebook, they moved there within a matter of weeks! Holtzbrinck Digital, the company that had bought the social network from its creators, was left with a digital graveyard and had to write off more than 85 million Euros in the aftermath.

The same is going to happen with PANTONE, Instagram, Facebook and many other apps: if software companies don't listen to their customers, and really find out how they use the products beyond analytics, they'll lose in the long run.

On a side note, even Apple is facing a deminishing iOS market share now: iOS is nothing special since they've introduced their ugly Flat Design despite all criticism, so customers are much less willing to pay a premium over similar Android phones. I'll speak at the 2017 annual Apple shareholder meeting about this.

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