Apple made a quiet and significant change to iOS 14 and iPadOS 14 this week, allowing users to set default email and browser apps. It’s a move that means iPhone and iPad owners will be able to click on web links or email addresses in any app and have them open in their favorite browser or email client. But that’s as far as Apple’s default apps choices go. Apple will still force everyone to use its own apps for photos, maps, music, messaging, calendars, and more.
Apple’s built-in camera app is great for the basics, but there are so many better alternatives that offer advanced RAW shooting and other powerful tools that you might want to open from the lock screen shortcut or just appear automatically within apps that leverage the camera. Apple could improve the camera situation by opening it up to third parties as others have in the past.
While Windows Phone supported default app switching for the camera, Microsoft and Nokia went further by allowing developers to build special third-party “Lenses” into the main camera app. It meant you could extend the default way to capture photos without having to switch to different apps, all while having these extensions appear in every app that uses the camera.
Windows Phone Lenses. Image: dpreview
Apple Maps has gradually improved over the years, but Google Maps is still far superior outside the US. Unfortunately, you can’t set Google Maps as the universal default for navigation and mapping. That hasn’t changed with iOS 14, even though many apps already offer a user-adjustable setting to launch Google Maps or Apple Maps by default.
Apple hasn’t said much about its decision to limit default app changes to just the browser and email, but it certainly feels like an easy capitulation just as the company faces greater scrutiny from regulators over its App Store practices. Apple has defaulted to its own apps for years, and competitors like Spotify have argued that it uses these defaults to crush competition.
Siri has always been locked to Apple Music, and Spotify only just started working with the digital assistant last year. Apple also locked the HomePod to Apple Music, making Spotify playback a cumbersome process. Despite Apple’s changes to Siri in iOS 13 last year, you still have to awkwardly say, “Hey Siri, play Taylor Swift on Spotify,” instead of the default “play Taylor Swift,” which pulls songs directly from Apple Music on an iPhone.
iOS 14 also won’t allow changes to the default voice assistant. Siri remains the only legitimate choice for voice commands, and it’s not clear if the default search queries within Siri — like identifying songs and pushing you to Apple Music — will change with this update. You can at least launch the superior Google Assistant through new back tap gestures that are coming in iOS 14.
Apple’s HomePod. Photo by James Bareham / The Verge
Defaults like Siri pushing you to use Apple Music or Safari returning Google search results also help net Apple billions of dollars in services revenue every year. While licensing agreements are an opaque area of Apple’s business, we do know Google paid $1 billion to stay as the default search in Safari back in 2014. Some analysts claim these payments now total over $9 billion per year.
While Apple still generates the majority of its revenue through pure hardware sales, its services business has been growing rapidly in recent years. This puts an even bigger spotlight on defaults and Apple’s ability to leverage its operating system to push its own services in ways that rivals could never do. Apple decided last year that it’s fine for it to use push notifications to promote its new Apple TV Plus subscription service, even though third-party app developers are prohibited from doing this.
How Apple makes billions of dollars selling services
Apple is gradually bringing its walls down, either by choice or because of looming pressure from regulators. Many iPhone and iPad users will be happy they can finally set default apps for their browser and email apps, but those same people are probably wondering, like I am, why Apple hasn’t gone further.