When mobile apps go bad

Mobile apps get frequent updates -- whether you want them or not -- and sometimes the result is an inferior product

A few times a week, one or more apps on my iPad and iPhone are updated, and I duly install the new version; Android users know the routine too. I sometimes regret it, but there's no way to go back, so I'm stuck with the update. I really wish you could revert to a previous version.

It happened recently when Reuters updated its News Pro app for iPad. What had been a fairly fast-loading, easy-to-read news app now brought molasseslike load times and difficult-to-read articles. Plus, navigating among the stories requires more steps than before. There were no bugs to fix and no compelling flaws in the previous version. Someone simply decided to change the UI, and they did so in a bad way. That app is now gone from my iPad, though fortunately the iPhone version remains unmolested and still usable. Likewise, the update two weeks ago to Fidelity for iPad app ruined what had been an easy-to-use portfolio management tool, larding it with visual gewgaws and unnecessarily adding multiple steps to do the portfolio management the app exists for in the first place. Sigh.

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News Pro is not the first app to get a regrettable update. Perhaps the most infamous case is that of the Netflix app for iPad, which last spring removed its ability to add DVDs to your queue and introduced a UI that made it all but impossible to scroll or search for movies and TV shows. Worse, you could hardly avoid starting unwanted video playback, given the lack of space for basic navigation gestures like scrolling. In retrospect, it was the first stage in Netflix's suicide strategy of 2011. The strategy has worked, with hundreds of thousands of people like myself saying bye.

Bank of America dropped support for multiple accounts in an update earlier this year and made the app slower. It later brought back multiple-account support. I dropped BofA, too, but for reasons related to its unabashed greed rather than its inept update.

A good UI is critical for a successful mobile app, and that means the ability to resize text and other UI elements, especially for people like me, who use mobile devices on the go and often don't have a pair of reading glasses handy. This is one of the most pervasive flaws in mobile apps. It's terrible when an app like News Pro goes from good to bad in this regard, given how many apps are subpar from the get-go -- such as BBC News (for both iPad and iPhone), Apple fanboy news app TUAW (for iPhone), and American Express (for iPad; the iPhone version is good). It's not just an iOS issue, of course -- I see the same issues in the equivalent Android apps, as well as in built-in messaging apps in Windows Phone.

Another component of a good UI is easy, minimized navigation. Apps are all over the map in this regard. Some, like News Pro, had decent navigation but ruined it by adding too many options and, thus, extra steps for what used to be common activities. This sin is common to desktop apps -- ask any user of Adobe software about how much gunk accrues with each upgrade, resulting in both unfathomable clutter and an increasing numbers of steps as the kitchen-sink functionality breaks down to multiple layers to navigate through. I've sadly watched Creative Suite become riddled with such barnacleware over the years, and Adobe is methodically complexifying its Omniture SiteCatalyst Web app as well.

A related flaw is offering too many options, as in the case of the San Francisco Chronicle iPad app, which has multiple navigation methods that could easily be simplified. Less is more, as any Apple aficionado can tell you -- even as you add features and are tempted to pile on navigation methods in parallel. At least the Chronicle app as a whole is effective in presenting the news stories readably. But even better are the Economist, Le Monde, and New York Times apps.

Sometimes, the clutter is the problem, as the app tries to do too much and resembles Frankenstein's monster as a result. A great example of this is the Print n Share app, which brought wireless printing to iOS devices. At the time it came out, "air sharing" -- using Wi-Fi to send files between iOS devices and computers -- was a popular category. Many apps added it, even if it was not core to their purpose. Print n Share was one of those, but it didn't stop there: It also has email, a browser, address book, camera, and photo allbum. The app is a mess, and using it to print is not easy.

The issue is moot now, however. iOS 5 eliminated the technical loophole that such apps use to access non-AirPrint-compatible printers (there are still few). Print n Share no longer can print anything but emails and Web pages, and only by opening them in its app. It's all been killed by iOS 5, so its poor UI is now the least of its problems.

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