Why the solutions to the digital attention crisis will emerge from Google > Apple.
Strict developer limitations will prevent Apple from taking meaningful leadership in the movement to realign technology with humanity’s best interests, rendering Android the land of opportunity in the near term.
In January, two major shareholders of Apple, Inc. wrote a letter to the firm’s board of directors imploring them to consider how technology affects children’s wellbeing.
Apple responded that it has “has always looked out for kids” and in March defended its products by promoting a new Families Page outlining the array of features it currently offers to support families in being happy and healthy.
Meanwhile, college students protested the company’s failure to take steps to curb technology addiction, and Common Sense Media announced a $50M #TruthAboutTech campaign to get tech companies to make products that are “less intrusive and less addictive.”
Are these signs of big changes on the horizon?
I wouldn’t expect anything substantial anytime soon.
When we examine Apple’s design philosophy, it’s clear why the world’s most innovative company is unlikely to take sincere leadership.
Whereas Android–despite Google’s reliance on advertising–invites creators to leverage the open platform’s developer tools to address the problem in a meaningful way. That’s where we’ll see the most innovation and impact in the near term.
I should know. My team at Siempo has created a revolutionary app for Android that is giving people their lives back from tech addiction.
Yet we can’t deliver half of these features to our iOS supporters.
Apple’s design philosophy stifles innovation in this category.
iPhone users are bending their backs to make their phones less distracting, in order to reclaim their productivity, relationships and mental wellbeing. The leading solution so far is a manual, 12-step, back-door, unintelligent “grayscale” trick, which is merely a half measure.
Apple has introduced some of the world’s most iconic, helpful and beautiful consumer products in history through relentless focus on the user experience.
So much so that the only way they can ensure this high quality experience for all users is to strictly control all the hardware and software that runs on the device.
This strategy has worked well, as consumers have grown to love and celebrate the brand known for consistently delivering better and more seductive products, not to mention market leaders in security and privacy. To it’s credit, Apple’s restrictive developer permissions limit potential abuses by apps that could make our digital environment even more distracting.
But as society awakens to the long term consequences of screen time and smartphone addiction emerges as one of the hottest tech topics of the year, people are looking for help and wondering why Big Tech is unwilling to think differently in this critical area.
Apple’s design philosophy is incompatible with what consumers need.
A number of third party apps exist to help iOS users who are motivated to improve their digital health and wellness. Moment tracks your usage, Forest incentivizes users to disconnect. Space lets you know when you have exceeded your usage or pickup limit.
This category of iOS apps is proving helpful in select aspects of digital life, such as raising awareness of one’s behavior, but limited in its overall effectiveness because it can only get so creative within the confines of what the App Store allows.
Digital wellness entrepreneurs bemoan how the the iOS developer platform limits their imagination and ability to help those who are struggling.
Since iOS apps are unable to augment other parts of the iPhone experience, the products in this category struggle because they have to compete with all the other apps on your phone to be used, are easy to circumvent, and cannot change anything about the phone’s user interface.
Apple could solve this problem. But don’t hold your breath.
The Center for Humane Technology believes companies like Apple, Samsung and Microsoft have this unique point of leverage because:
Keeping people hooked to the screen isn’t their business model. They can redesign their devices and core interfaces to protect our minds from constant distractions, minimize screen time, protect our time in relationships, and replace the App Store marketplace of apps competing for usage with a marketplace of tools competing to benefit our lives and society.
Unfortunately, Apple doesn’t seem too interested in this direction yet, and if it does decide to move that way, it will likely act slow because:
(1) Apple has clear economic disincentives to incorporate humane design on a mass scale, as the firm depends on promoting the most profitable (distracting) apps in the App Store for 5% of its total revenue.
The top 10 iOS apps by revenue include Netflix, Tinder and Candy Crush: some of the biggest abusers of design for dependency, who would be very unhappy to be “regulated” within the iOS ecosystem, which on average accounts for 4x the revenue of their counterparts on Android.
Apple also relies on planned obsolesence: customers must remain heavy users eating through battery cycles as fast as possible so they need to keep replacing their devices. What would happen when hundreds of millions of users cut their phone time in half?
(2) Apple would need to allow developers deeper OS-level access to create alternative home screens, notification delivery systems, and other humane tools.
Must we be presented with a grid of bright corporate logos every time we open our phone 150x/day?
Must we have no way to monitor and limit our usage?
Must all badges and push notifications be turned on by default?
Must our only options for notification delivery be all the time or never?
We can’t even begin to explore these questions today.
Such a pivot to openness and flexibility would be unprecedented for the company and would require coordinated efforts across a variety of business units (iOS, Siri, Watch, etc).
(3) The largest, most perfectionist company on earth doesn’t move fast. In fact it generally moves later after others have proven product-market fit (see smartphone, wireless headphones, home speaker).
If Apple is going to make a big change, they will spend years making sure they get it right. Unfortunately, there hasn’t been enough research and innovation to know what is right yet.
At best we can expect Apple to take only small steps towards this effort.
Perhaps Apple will roll out access to limited UX permissions, or slowly allow “well-intended” app developers to fiddle with them.
Maybe they will start reflecting device and app usage data back to users. But we know that is only one piece of the puzzle and won’t move the needle for all kids and adults who are struggling with digital dependency.
Ultimately, Apple’s business model, design philosophy and culture of perfectionism render the firm ill-positioned to solve the problem anytime soon.
Is Android the land of opportunity?
It’s counterintuitive. Google relies on monetizing users’ attention with advertisements for 84% of its total revenue. But because of how open the Android platform is for developers, we are likely to see more innovation in the digital wellness space here vs. on iOS.
Apple and Google have different design philosophies. Apple is responsible for knowing what’s best for its users and making sure they have the same experience, whereas Google believes users may all want different things, and thus offers a more flexible platform to developers.
How it Works.
On the surface, Android and iOS are very similar smartphone operating systems. Both have a lock-screen, a home-screen, a voice assistant, etc. Most 3rd-party apps, whether viewed on Android or iOS, have the exact same functions, even if they look a little bit different.
However, a closer look reveals a crucial difference between the two third-party platforms.
Apple’s OS only runs on Apple devices, which allows iOS to deliver a tightly controlled and identical global-experience to every user. Google’s OS must support many different device manufacturers. And these different manufactures have many unique chipsets, screen sizes, cameras, and physical buttons. Each of them needs the ability to create a custom fork of Android as well as custom core-apps that support their unique hardware.
The consequence of this difference for Android users is that their lock-screen, home-screen, and core apps–such as for making calls or taking photos–will be different depending on which device they purchase.
The consequence for app developers is that they have the freedom on Android to customize the global-experience of using the device.
While Google can reject any app that abuses this freedom, and has recently shown signs of getting stricter on select UX permissions, it’s technically possible for any Android app to change every aspect of the end user’s experience from the moment they unlock the phone.
This includes changing what’s visible on the home-screen, replacing app-icons, generating or intercepting text messages, and even drawing content over top of other apps.
Some of these apps, known as “home apps” or “launchers,” serve hundreds of millions of users worldwide as they can make their interface more minimalist, more customizable or more like a “Hello Kitty Phone.”
Google has its own launcher installed by default on the Nexus and Pixel devices that are designed, developed and marketed all by Google. It’s important to note that even if Google were to make its launcher more humane, it would only go into effect on a fraction of Android devices.
Launchers can be more technically challenging and resource-intensive to build, but they offer entrepreneurs the chance to develop a niche experience of the mobile internet.
What would an Oprah Phone or Tony Robbins Phone look and feel like?
A Headspace Phone or CrossFit Phone?
In fact, in 2013 Facebook attempted to trojan horse their way into the smartphone space by launching Facebook Home to turn any Android device into a “Facebook Phone.” It failed in large part due to the invasiveness of having the news feed on the lock screen, but demonstrated the imagination developers could exercise on the platform.
An iOS app can only offer features to a user after they search for and launch that app and only while they’re using that app. But an Android app can offer features that change the look & feel of the OS and that persist across every screen and app.
This key difference between Android and iOS is most important for users who find their entire smartphone experience to be too distracting or unhealthy.
Android users are free to seek out 3rd-party apps that provide a healthier global-experience, and Android app developers are free to innovate in the digital wellness space.
Meanwhile, iOS users are entirely dependent on Apple to support their digital health. They’ll need to wait until the concerns about smartphone distraction and overuse become undeniable to the point that Apple is compelled to address those issues more seriously.
Android is your best bet if you struggle with tech addiction or want to be part of creating the solution.
As of today,
Apple doesn’t care enough about you yet, and doesn’t allow developers to serve your needs.
Google doesn’t care enough about you yet, and does allow developers to serve your needs.
Here are some examples of Android apps that have emerged in recent months:
- Siempo Launcher lets users batch notifications and unbrand app icons
- Luna Launcher features geo fencing to block selected apps when one’s child is at school or home
- LilSpace and Thrive include an SMS autoresponder
- Go Gray will allow grayscale trick scheduling
These features aren’t possible on iOS, but are conducive to Android’s platform approach, optimized for user customization and broad opportunities for app developers. Of course these developers may build iOS versions of their products, but they will be watered down.
If you are an iOS user or know one who wants to get serious about their digital wellness, consider trading in your device. If you have kids coming of age, don’t buy them a fully loaded iPhone as their first device.
Android has come a long way in the last few years, and even offers more OS-level features designed to make your phone less distracting, such as advanced DND settings. On the premium end, there are a dozen phones that give the iPhone X a run for its money. This author is happy with the $168 LG K20 V he picked up last week.
At the end of the day, neither platform is perfect. Many won’t trade privacy and security for customization and digital wellness, or their iMessage addiction for being a green bubble friend.
We’re only just beginning to understand this problem. A small but growing number of people care about this today. Everybody will in the future. What we need is experimentation and research to discover healthier design paradigms. We need to demand better products and educate each other on healthier digital habits.