When mobile apps go bad

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

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Another such kitchen-sink app is GoodReader, which started life as an enhanced version of iOS's Quick Look document preview facility, then added file sharing and file management within its app (iOS doesn't have a pan-app file system). Recently, GoodReader added PDF annotation -- for which it is really good, by the way. The good news is that the app has slowly been cleaned up; although not the most elegant app available, it's now usable.

Adobe SiteCatalyst Visualize, an app for monitoring Web traffic, has a confusing array of options, too many components to choose from, and a bizarre default of showing a cloud of keywords -- a display style meant to demonstrate the popularity of keywords and how they relate other keywords. It's bizarre because it's nearly impossible to select a keyword from that overlapping set of terms, yet that cloud display is the primary selection tool. Yes, you can switch to an interminable list view, but geez! What's sad is that the iPad is a great visualization tool, as Roambi Vizualizer proves.

As I've said, Adobe is notorious for poor UI -- but it doesn't always fail in this regard. Its Adobe Reader app is easy to use, as is its basic Photoshop Express retouching app.

Then there are apps that are poorly designed from a functional point of view. SiteCatalyst -- both the original version from Omniture and the visualizer version from Adobe, which acquired Omniture -- are good examples of two strains of this illness. The original can hardly show anything, so it's not useful (similar to how Netflix's app is too crippled or how Microsoft's Office apps on Windows Phone 7 are too primitive). The new version goes in the other direction, providing a spasm of options poorly organized and presented; it's much easier to use the Web app on your iPhone or iPad.

If an app works better in the browser than as a native app, something is very wrong, and it's not just SiteCatalyst Visualizer that is faulty in this way. Take Concur, a travel management app tied to corporate travel agencies: You can't select text in it, such as to copy your confirmation code to an airline's flight-tracking site, you can't add your itinerary to your calendar, and you can't book or manage your flights (just hotels -- a usage-killing limitation in the Orbitz app as well). I end up skipping the app and using the website directly. Unfortunately, there's a key flaw in its website, too: Its exported .ics calendar files work only with Microsoft Outlook (Windows or Mac), not with any other .ics-compatible apps. That means you can't add your itinerary when on the go via your iOS, BlackBerry, or Android device, nor if you use Apple's Mail for Mac OS X.

A native mobile app should be easier to use than a website from a mobile device, even if it offers a subset of the capabilities. I don't get why anyone would ship apps that don't meet this criterion. Fortunately, users expect mobile app updates, and despite the preceding list of failures, some titles get better. Case in point: U.S. Bank's original mobile banking app, which was both limited and awkward on an iPad or iPhone. A recent update is well-designed for the iPhone, offering the key functionality in a clean interface. It's not iPad-optimized, though, so tablet users should continue to go to the bank's website, which works just fine in a tablet's browser.

And a native app should offer some valid differentiation from the Web app or a native OS function -- unlike Google's Gmail app for iOS, a totally unnecessary app given the built-in Mail app handles Gmail easily. Likewise, an app that extends a popular app has to do more -- unlike TweetDeck for iPhone, for example, which can't do anything more than the regular Twitter app, dropping such essential TweetDeck functions as scheduling tweets for later. Why bother?

The good news is that there a lot of well-designed and highly functional apps to choose from. Examples from my iPad include Apple's Keynote presentation app, the Economist news app, the Twitter app, the Zite news-collection app, Apple's iBooks and Amazon.com's Kindle e-reader apps, the Kayak travel-reservations iPad app, the WaveRecorder audio recorder app, the Fidelity portfolio-management iPad app, the Amazon Mobile shopping app, and a bunch of games (from Angry Birds to Game for Cats, from Crazy Snowboard to Real Solitaire).

This article, "When mobile apps go bad," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Galen Gruman's Mobile Edge blog and follow the latest developments in mobile technology at InfoWorld.com. Follow Galen's mobile musings on Twitter at MobileGalen. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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