While I wouldn’t want this to be a general statement: platform-owned apps can be really terrible. Why? Because they don’t permit level-playing field competition between their own apps and third party apps on their platform. And that lack of competition is costly; maybe even for the platforms themselves.
Consider a first example: iTunes. iTunes is an app that exists on Macs and PCs that holds Apple sold content. When it first appeared alongside the iPod, there were some music players around but iTunes did its job. But a decade later and I cannot for the life of me work out what iTunes is for. It still holds content but that content is varied. Music, podcasts, television, movies, home movies and mobile apps — just mobile apps, desktop Mac apps have their own app store. And recently, it also holds Apple Music. But it is hard to imagine that this is any way close to optimal. For starters, why aggregate? How does that help the user? Second, why not think about personalisation? A list of playlists doesn’t cut it. In reality, it is some form of interface to cloud based content storage. Then why package it this way. Once you have the cloud you can lock the content so why not let others work out how to present that to consumers?
Let’s turn to a second example: Kindle. You don’t think of this as an app but it is. It is on multiple devices and plays the critical function of allowing you to read digital books. When it first appeared the sheer novelty of digital reading was enough but today as a reading app it is stale. There has been little innovation. And from a design perspective, there is little delight in a new page. Craig Mod, a noted designer, has explained how and why digital books have stopped evolving. The bottom line is apparently DRM but, in reality, I think it is because market power both on Amazon’s part in this space and from publishers has translated into just not caring. The lack of innovation has not only failed to keep track of reader expectations but has also lead to little innovation in book presentation itself. The combination is a tragedy.
Finally, a third example: Twitter. A few years ago, Twitter closed its platform (mostly). Apps were allowed that accessed Twitter data so long as they didn’t get ‘big.’ If that happened, then Twitter would pretty much ‘own’ them. But, as many have pointed out, Twitter is struggling with growth; mostly because people don’t know how to use it but also because Twitter itself doesn’t seem to know what it should be used for. Now Twitter did this, most likely, to keep control over potential monetisation. But the cost is enormous because it was apps and users that generated most of the significant Twitter innovations (like the famous ‘re-tweet’). For my own perspective, I doubt I would use Twitter at all but for Tweetbot (one of the pricier Twitter clients). It is precisely when a use case is ill defined that you want to encourage platform experimentation and innovation. But Twitter shut that down and is paying the consequence. And its own apps offer no path forward.
I say all of this to highlight a theme but also to argue that for some platforms the cost is worse than others. Sadly, it is hard to come up with a convincing business rationale that allows this state of affairs to continue and certainly impossible to come up with one that squares with the seeming damage done to user experience.