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By Dan Moren

Wish List: Change default apps on iOS

An oldie, but a goodie. Today’s earlier post on Firefox got me thinking, once again, about default apps. It’s one of those requests that seems to pop up every year or so, usually in advance of the latest version of iOS.

OS X has long allowed you to choose a different default app for certain categories, such as mail clients and web browsers. Primarily this means that when you trigger a mail or browser link, it opens the app you’ve chosen; that way you’re not locked into Mail or Safari.1

That’s never been an option on iOS. For a long time, in fact, third-party mail clients and browsers were essentially persona non grata on the platform2, but in recent years, Apple’s loosened up on that—good thing, too, since it not only gives customers a wider set of choices, but also provides a foil for Apple’s own efforts, pushing Cupertino to constantly improve its own offerings.

Open in...
Some apps, such as Tweetbot, allow you to choose a default browser for links.

But on iOS, the built-in apps have always retained at least one major advantage, and that’s integration. If you’re dedicated enough to commit to an alternative set of apps—such as Google’s Gmail and Chrome apps, for example—you can sort of carve out a little micro-ecosystem inside of iOS. But given the low levels at which apps like Mail and Safari are baked in to so much of the OS, third party developers still have the deck stacked against them.3

Which is why it would be nice if Apple would allow you to specify third-party app options for some common categories of app: mail clients, browsers, calendaring, even calculators are all good examples. I’m pretty happy with Apple’s own options for those—and I imagine that many iOS users would never bother to change them. But for those who want to, it ought to be an option.

Personally, for example, I would love it if I could specify Tweetbot as my default Twitter app on iOS. Yes, there is a first-party Twitter app, and iOS even has some low-level integration with the service, but I like Tweetbot’s interface, so why can’t I have the Share sheet’s Twitter option open that app instead of the system’s interface?

But even on OS X, where Apple does provide default app options for some things, the company’s already made end runs around that feature by creating functionality that links its own apps. For example: want to use Apple’s nifty data detectors, which let you quickly create calendar events from inside Mail messages? You better be using OS X’s Calendar app. Messages on OS X offers the ability to choose other default IM apps, but no other apps support the iMessage protocol, so if you want iMessages on your Mac, you’re stuck there too.

We often herald Apple’s approach at making the whole widget, getting all of their software and hardware to work together seamlessly. And it’s often great. When it works, it provides for some truly marvelous integration. But the drop-off is often sharp: risk taking a step outside the ecosystem and many of those clever features fall of a cliff. The cynical spin on it is that Apple wants users to eschew third-party apps for its wonderful first-party options; the optimistic angle is that Apple simply wants to give its users the best, most seamless experience. I’d guess the truth is probably a little of column A, a little of column B.

iOS isn’t Android, and I think most of us are pretty glad of that fact. But it would be nice to see a little more choice from Apple, and a little more empowerment for customers. Some users are going to choose third-party apps no matter what; it’d be nice if Apple gave those folks a bit more support.


  1. I wouldn’t be surprised if this was at least a partial response to the Microsoft antitrust case, which required the company to “unbundle” Internet Explorer.  ↩

  2. Remember the good old “duplicates existing functionality” App Store rejections? Good times.  ↩

  3. Of course, Apple won’t even let you remove the Stocks app, so don’t hold your breath.  ↩

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[Dan Moren is a tech writer, novelist, podcaster, and the Official Dan of Six Colors. You can email him at dan@sixcolors.com or find him on Twitter at @dmoren.]