Apple's iOS Restrictions Aren't Helping Tech Addiction

When Apple kicks off its Worldwide Developers Conference on Monday, it’s largely expected that Apple CEO Tim Cook will introduce a few new “digital wellness” features for iOS, the iPhone’s operating system. It would follow in the footsteps of Google—which introduced its own suite of wellness tools for Android last month—and a growing sentiment in Silicon Valley that we need better tools to unglue ourselves from our phones.

On iPhones, though, building those tools hasn’t been easy. A group of 20 app developers and thought leaders in the “digital wellness” space—people like Chris Dancy, author of Don’t Unplug: Embracing Technology to Improve Your Life, and Catherine Price, author of How to Break Up With Your Phone—are now calling attention to the ways Apple’s platform has historically stood in the way of third-party digital wellness apps. In a petition to the company, they’re asking Apple to open up its software development kit and give developers the ability to customize the iPhone’s home screen, auto-trigger Do Not Disturb mode, or provide richer insight into app usage.

“We have millions of iPhone supporters waiting for us to make our innovative tools available to them,” the petition says, “but all we can do is offer unsatisfactory products, or encourage them to switch to Android.”

It’s a clear message to Apple: The digital wellness revolution is coming, and if developers can’t make tools for your platform, you’re going to get left behind.

Time Well Spent

“If 70 percent of people really care about this, like Google announced a few weeks ago, then Apple’s going to have to make some radical changes,” says Andrew Dunn, the creator of Siempo, an Android launcher that changes the homescreen to remove distractions and minimize app notifications. “There are all of these digital wellness developers that can do amazing things on Android. But we really have our hands tied on iOS.”

Long before Google announced its “digital wellness” initiative, Android developers were building tools to chip away at what seemed like a growing attention crisis on smartphones. Some built Android launchers like Siempo, which offers a distraction-free home screen; and Luna, which redesigns the interface with kids in mind. Others created apps like Instant and Quality Time, which track how long people spend looking at their screens and how often they unlock their phones. Others emerged to help people make better use of their time onscreen (like Buddhify, a digital meditation app) and help people make better use of their time offscreen (like Flipd, which locks people out of distracting apps during certain periods of the day).

The beauty of this ecosystem is the range of solutions. Anecdotally, most people agree that they spend too much time staring at their phones, but the remedies are not one-size-fits-all. Some people want a version of their phone they feel good about giving to their kids; others want to enjoy all the spoils of our connected world in their free time, but without the distractions at school or work. Others just want a way to break the habit of instinctively swiping their phone open and mindlessly scrolling through Instagram. On Android, it’s possible to piece together the phone experience that makes sense for you, with as many or few limitations as you see fit.

But those options haven’t always translated to iPhones. Take an app like SPACE, available for both Android and iOS. The app redirects people to a loading screen with a few seconds of delay (or a “moment of zen”) before opening a distracting app. When you try to open one of these apps—like, say, Instagram—SPACE gives you a few seconds to reconsider your choices.

The most used feature on the Android version of SPACE lets users exclude certain apps that they find purposeful. You might want to create some distance from Instagram, Facebook, and Gmail, while keeping immediate access to Google Maps and Evernote. “I had one use case of a girl excluding her Bible app,” says Georgie Powell, SPACE’s creator. The iOS version doesn’t include the option to “whitelist” those apps—or other features, like a notification blocker, a breakdown of app usage, and unlock stats—because of Apple’s restrictions on third-party apps.

The difference isn’t just that SPACE works better on Android phones than it does on iPhones. It’s that users are more likely to change their behavior when they have a whole suite of tools, says Powell. The Android version gets better reviews, better user retention, and has better overall impact on its users.

Other “digital wellness” tools don’t work at all on iOS. Siempo and other home-screen launchers only work on Android, because iOS doesn’t let developers make changes to the iPhone’s home screen. “We’re also not able to change anything about notifications or the icons,” says Dunn, Siempo’s CEO.

Even if Apple rolls out a set of native features similar to the ones Google announced—dashboards for tracking phone usage, app timers for setting limits on certain apps, and more intuitive gestures to flip on Do Not Disturb or night mode—most developers won’t be able to leverage them in their own apps. Last year, Apple added a new option to activate Do Not Disturb mode while driving. It prompts users to block incoming notifications as soon as they get into a moving vehicle. But the feature doesn’t work for scenarios besides driving, and iOS developers can’t incorporate it into their apps.

“Apple is holding this feature hostage,” says Alana Harvey, the CEO of Flipd. She’d like to see other apps, like the calendar, make use of the Do Not Disturb function to minimize distractions during times that are already marked as busy. Another feature she’d like to see made available to developers is an auto-response, which would trigger an SMS reply to calls or texts during a busy period—something that’s already available on Android devices, but not on iPhones. “I think it’s kind of silly that when we’re driving is the only scenario where we’re going to want some sort of auto response text message to go to someone to let them know we’re busy.”

It’s possible that Apple could introduce all of this on the next version of iOS, with built-in wellness capabilities. But these developers believe that Apple only stands to gain from collaboration with its ecosystem of app developers—especially the ones that have been working toward solutions for years. “They need all the tools on hand, rather than [just the ones] hidden in their settings,” says Powell. “Just as there is space for fitness apps in a world where Apple’s [Health Kit] exists, it is equally important that there is innovation and personalization in the digital health space to support the growing demand for tools like ours.”

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