An Experiment in First Party Apps

Reflections on several weeks of using only Apple’s first party apps.

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Over the past couple weeks, and largely prompted by the releases of iOS 9 and OS X El Capitan, I’ve been trying an experiment where I used first party apps everywhere I possibly could. I had three main reasons for giving this a try: simply enjoying doing experiments like this, liking to challenge my assumptions about what I think I need to do my work, and being curious about how my computing experience might be better if I went all-in on the Apple ecosystem.

Without going through app by app I figured I’d share some of my larger learning points:

There’s a certain elegance or comforting state of mind to using all first-party apps.

I’m not sure if this is just my own broken mind or if others experience this as well, but when I was using first party apps across all my devices I felt calm about my setup. All the apps were made by the same company so ostensibly they should all work together extremely well, right? They all came pre-installed with the device I’m using so I’m computing in as minimal way as possible. No fussing over three different apps that all do basically the same thing — instead just using what’s provided and staying focused on the work. I liked the feeling of knowing that I was using my devices with almost no customization. I knew I could buy a new computer or borrow somebody else’s and I’d feel comfortable in doing the work I needed to do.

Some of the apps are just as good as what I was using before and I’ve decided to stick with them.

Early in this experiment I deleted Evernote from my phone and my computer and decided to try to use the new Notes app as its replacement. While Notes does not bill itself as an Evernote replacement and it’s not nearly as full featured as Evernote I quickly realized that it worked better for what I needed to do. Evernote had become bloated over the past few years and I no longer enjoyed using it. What I realized by shifting to Notes is that I didn’t need something as big and all-encompassing as Evernote to do my work. Notes is lightweight yet still powerful, syncs across my devices nearly instantaneously, and (this is where Evernote started to fail) is actually enjoyable to use.

You begin to appreciate apps that do the little things well when all you use are first party apps for awhile.

This experiment actually pitted two opposite sides of my personality against each other. The minimalist inside me loves the idea of using only the bare minimum tools to get work done. However, there’s also a very large part of me who loves to make sure I’m using the best tool in every situation. In many ways I have power user tendencies that result in trying out tons of new things and really making sure that what I’m using is truly best-in-class. While Apple has done an admirable job across most of the apps they ship with iOS or OS X, the aren’t necessarily aimed at power users. They aim to do the bare minimum. They do the bare minimum extremely well, but there were times I found myself longing for some apps that added that extra level of polish and functionality.

All in all, I’m glad I gave this a try over the past few weeks. Even though I’m shifting back to some of my beloved non-first party apps I now know that if I had to I could be perfectly productive using nothing but the provided apps. I may not choose to work that way right now but there’s a certain peace of mind knowing that I don’t truly need my fancy third party apps to get serious work done. And, as with any personal experiment, I learned a little bit more about myself and what I value.

If you’re curious about what I tried and what I decided to keep using I’m providing my current setup below:

  • I tried using Podcasts.app across my devices but I ended up going back to Overcast because of Smart Speed.
  • I tried using TextEdit on my Mac for all my basic word processing needs but I moved back to Byword because of Markdown support.
  • I tried using Twitter.app and the Twitter website and I’m still kind of undecided between sticking with it or going back to Tweetbot. Tweetbot is a delight to use but I’m worried about Twitter’s relationship with third party developers and I feel like I should get on board with how Twitter obviously wants people to interact with the service.
  • I tried using Calendar.app on my iPhone and on my computer but have decided to shift back to Fantastical. Quick adding events with natural language is a much better experience than adding events in Apple’s calendar app.
  • I tried using Notes.app instead of Evernote and I’m sticking with it. The new Notes app is top notch.
  • I tried using Reminders as a replacement for Things. Reminders is really not built for managing lots of complex projects so I very quickly realized it wasn’t going to work as a replacement for more robust task management software.
  • I tried committing to Mail.app on all my devices and I’ve decided to stick with it. I honestly don’t get very much email and it has been more than sufficient and enjoyable to use for my needs.
  • I’ve been using Safari across all my devices for a long time so no change there.
  • I tried using Numbers and Pages instead of Excel and Word. So far I’ve been able to stick with Numbers and Pages but I have a feeling there will be situations where I will need to revert to Excel and Word (particularly with my PhD work and collaborating with my advisor). However, I haven’t installed the Microsoft Office suite on my new work computer and I’m going to see how long I can hold out.
  • I committed to using iBooks over the Kindle app awhile ago. I didn’t like having my e-book collection spread across multiple services so several months ago I decided to go all-in with iBooks. I really enjoy it so far.
  • I tried the three month free trial of Apple Music when it first came out and decided to commit to it over Spotify. In many ways Spotify and Apple Music were basically identical for me so I decided to give the tie to the first party app. I suspect I’ll dip into Spotify from time to time to see how it’s being developed, especially if Apple Music begins to feel stagnant. For now I’m happy with it.
  • I committed to using iCloud Drive as my data backend wherever possible. I still have a Dropbox account because that is how my research lab shares data but for everything else I’m using iCloud Drive. So far it has been rock solid.
  • I tried using Safari Reading List as a replacement for Instapaper. I’m going back to Instapaper, though, primarily for the offline reading and the ability to “like” articles. I have a pretty mature workflow around sending things to read to Instapaper from basically anywhere and then sharing great articles in batches with Buffer. I couldn’t figure out a good way to replicate that with Reading List. Plus, Reading List doesn’t save the articles for offline reading and I like to use Instapaper when I’m on the subway.
  • I’ve been using Apple Maps for a long time but I’ve had a series of complications recently that are causing me to seriously reconsider whether this should be my go-to mapping service. It’s walking a very narrow line with me right now…
  • I’ve been trying Apple News since the release of iOS 9. I’m not sure if it will fit into my workflow in the long run but right now I’m trying to give it a fair shake.
  • Key third party apps I use all the time that don’t really have a first party replacement include: Day One, Slack, Instagram, and Paprika. Other first party apps I use regularly include Photos, Reminders, and Messages.