How small developers compete with your phone’s default settings

James Thomson started developing PCalc in 1992 as a way to learn programming for the Mac. Since then, he has rewritten the calculator app several times with new UI changes, ported it to the iPhone, Apple Watch, and Apple TV, and maintained it for the Mac over the decades.

But PCalc’s popularity — let alone financial success — is unlikely. After all, Thomson doesn’t just have to sell customers on the idea of: paying for a calculator app; he has to convince them to spend $10 on his app in a world where Apple already offers its pre-installed Calculator app for free on every iPhone and Mac.

Apple bundles every iPhone with over 35 applications, including web browsing, email, weather, clock, calendar, camera, music, and pretty much every other important part of the phone. It also has a huge home advantage for most of its apps, setting them as the default, with no way to switch to another option (something the company is currently dealing with in a number of antitrust cases).

That puts developers like Thomson in a difficult position, forced to partner with Apple simultaneously to be distributed through the App Store, while still trying to outdo Apple’s own default apps with smaller — sometimes even single-person — teams. And yet, despite those challenges, many alternative apps have not only survived but thrive in the cutthroat world of the App Store. The key is to stand out: to create a better, richer experience than the more stripped-down standard apps offer, by offering apps with more advanced, unique, or different features than Apple’s vanilla alternative.

PCalc for Mac.
Image: TLA Systems

“Since day one, I’ve actually always competed with the built-in apps, so I try not to worry too much about it,” Thomson says. “Apple needs to make relatively simple apps that can be easily used by a billion people, so there are a lot of things they can’t or don’t want to do. You just have to go a little deeper and build something that will appeal to a smaller number of people.”

It’s a similar strategy to the popular alternative camera app Halide, which offers much more advanced features than Apple’s own camera app. Sebastiaan de With, co-founder of Halide, says, “We are trying to target our products at a market that Apple would foolishly pursue. Exposing manual exposure controls, for example, would alienate most of their very casual audience.”

However, one way to reach an audience is simply to create apps that add the features you’ve been looking for yourself. “When we launched, Halide was a passion project. We were two friends who loved photography and our dream was to create a camera app that was perfect for us,” says de With.

That logic also applies to smaller apps. Mustafa Yusuf, the developer of the to-do list app Tasks, says: The edge he was motivated to create his app because the default iOS Reminders app just didn’t have the features he wanted.

“When I started [developing apps], like a to-do list, it gets very messy very quickly,” Yusuf says. “A function can’t just be ‘to-do’ and ready – there are a lot of steps in between and there was no way for me to do that in an orderly or neat way, so it got really messy very quickly, and when I took just resorting to pen and paper.” So he created his own app, Tasks, which was built around offering the kind of subtasks and filters he was looking for.

Two screenshots of Halide.  One shows options for auto exposure, manual exposure, and zebras.  The other shows a waveform at the bottom of the viewfinder.

Halide includes advanced lighting tools like zebras and waveforms that you can’t get in the standard camera app.
Image: Lux

There are also other areas that give the more niche apps an edge. While Apple tends to update its feature-rich apps only once a year as part of its annual iOS releases, third-party developers can act at a much faster pace and add more features and updates throughout the year.

That doesn’t mean Apple events are hassle-free. The company is notorious for its history of “Sherlocking” features and its integration into its own apps. “I’d be lying if I didn’t hold my breath every time there was a WWDC keynote,” Thomson says, pointing to the possibility that Apple will finally make an iPad calculator app one day. And de With notes that some Halide features appeared in Apple’s Camera app later, such as the shutter animation. “It could be great minds thinking the same thing, or just a fun wink at us. Who knows!”

One challenge for alternative default apps, however, is pricing. The App Store in general has been in a race to the bottom almost since its inception; in 2021, paid apps will be a rarity among big names, and the most profitable apps on the platform are – without exception – free apps with subscriptions or in-app purchases.

And for apps like Tasks or Halide, having to outdo their free alternatives means facing the reality of subscriptions and free trials. “I can’t imagine having a paywall to even try the app out — if I had that barrier to get in, people would just go solo, because there’s only a bunch of free alternatives,” Yusuf says. “Forget Apple itself, right, just as Google has its own thing, Microsoft has its own thing going on.”

The Tasks app on Mac and iPad shows a navigation bar and three columns of tasks that read 'Do', 'Doing' and 'Done'.  The iPhone version only shows one column at a time.

Tasks on an iPad, Mac and iPhone.
Image: Mustafa Yusuf

However, subscriptions are a double-edged sword. They provide developers with recurring, stable revenue they can rely on — there’s a reason they’ve popped up more and more in apps like Halide, Carrot Weather, and Fantastical, all of which aim to provide alternatives to Apple’s default apps. But they’re also harder to sell to customers, who tend to incur higher costs in the long run.

It’s one of the reasons PCalc still maintains its upfront price, despite experimenting with a free version with in-app purchases a few years ago. “As a developer, I’d really like the recurring revenue from a subscription model, but I honestly don’t think it’s appropriate for a standalone utility like PCalc that doesn’t have an online infrastructure to maintain,” Thomson says.

However, the truth is that even if things change drastically on iOS and Apple and tomorrow announce that it would provide full access for any app as default, it seems unlikely that apps like Tasks, Halide or PCalc will ever gain the popularity of the built-in access options. Free is free, and for millions of iPhone customers, the basic apps that come with their phones are enough for the job; good is the enemy of great, especially when “good enough” is pre-installed.

But the sheer size of platforms like iOS (and Android, which gives developers a little more options when it comes to competing with defaults) means there’s still plenty of room for these alternative apps even in the more limited circumstances. As Thomson points out, there are over a billion Apple devices. “Even 1 percent of that billion is still a pretty big market for an indie developer, and you can hopefully find an audience.”

And when the day comes when Apple gives in and gives developers the chance to set their apps as defaults and compete even more with its own apps (as has already happened with services like email and web browsers in iOS 14) , at least some developers will seize the opportunity.

“Yes. A million times yes,” de With says to the idea of ​​making Halide a standard. “If it were an option on the table, we’d jump through all the hoops we need to – even if that means we’re app should adapt to these new considerations.”