How Apple is teaching the world about app connections

iOS 9 is getting close to ready (we’re on Beta 5 as I write this) so now seems like a good time to think about what Apple is really doing with their changes to how apps connect & interact.

What are the changes, anyway?

The “Back” button

The “Back” button appears when you enter an app any way other than tapping its icon on the Home screen. e.g. Tapping a deep link from a web browser or another app, tapping a notification (while an app is in focus) etc..

When a user taps the “Back” button, the app that they came from is brought back to the foreground. Interestingly, iOS doesn’t give the app that the user is returning to any indication of what happened or how the user returned.

Back Button Image

Universal Links replace the traditional scheme-based representation of content & actions within apps (e.g. twitter://user/button) with the web-based representation that you’re already familiar with -

Universal Links allow apps to intercept requests to these web URLs through Safari and instead open them in the app natively (e.g. on iOS 9 with the Twitter app, could open the Twitter app to Button’s profile).

Deep linking confirmation dialog

Now, the first time a user taps a deep link from one app to another (e.g. from Foursquare to Uber) an action confirmation will appear. This won’t happen on subsequent cross app actions between that app ‘pair’.

This has been a controversial change partially due to the bugs it shipped with, such as asking for confirmation when opening a deep link to your own app.

Confirmation Dialog

Spotlight now extends into apps by allowing developers to surface content in search using the CoreSpotlight APIs. All of this content is represented by a Universal Link, and where the content is marked as public, it will also be indexed by Apple across devices with their cloud search service.

OS-level deep search could be a huge source of new organic traffic to apps, but how it will work (& it’s potential volume) is still ambiguous.

What does all of this mean?

Apple has given notice that apps will not remain silos for long and this is the first wave of changes in that direction. Now they need to educate their userbase who have been taught that ‘silos provide safety’ a new mantra. That mantra is one that promises a controlled and safe way to move between apps on the device and importantly, always know where you are, and have the ability to navigate away.

As Apple introduces this shift in how users think about the apps on their phones, they need tools to help educate those users & protections to preserve trust in the iOS platform. Apps have to be accountable for how they behave in the cross-App environment. Users have to be able to clearly identify bad-actors as well as place the blame for their behavior on the app, not the OS.

The “Back” button (on top of being convenient) gives users the comfortability to explore actions across the boundaries of apps with the knowledge that they can come back. The confirmation dialog retains user comfortability with tapping buttons casually as they begin to understand what is an action in this app and what will transport them to another app. It also makes abuse of app connections more obvious and explicit - users can identify when developers are moving them around (auto-forwarding to the App Store from Safari is ridiculously annoying when employed by ads).

This is progress

iOS 9 brings the world of apps closer to where it should be. Consumers need to be introduced to app connections carefully, and iOS 9 is Apple’s take on this. In places their strategy is conservative, but anything which progresses app connections while maintaining trust in the ecosystem and keeping bad-actors at bay is a great thing in my book.