One of the biggest complaints many users have about Apple’s mobile operating system is that it tends to treat third-party apps like second-class citizens, always preferring to use its own apps as the defaults. For example, web links will always open in Safari, Maps links will always open in Apple Maps, and Mail links will always call up Apple Mail.
As frustrating as this can be when navigating between apps, it can get even more frustrating with Siri, which also always defaults to Apple’s built-in apps when doing things like sending messages, placing phone calls, playing music, or setting reminders. While Apple has opened up its Siri playground to let third-party apps in, to use a non-Apple app, you still need to specify the app’s name with each and every request, which can quickly get cumbersome.
For example, telling Siri “remind me” to do something will create a reminder in the built-in Reminders app, and telling Siri to “send a message” will only work with Apple’s own Messages app. If you want to use another app, you need to say so by using phrases like “Hey Siri, using Things, remind me to take out the garbage” or “Hey Siri, send a message to Bob using WhatsApp.”
Fortunately, it looks like that’s finally about to change, with a new report from Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman revealing that Apple is making plans to “loosen the reins” on some of the restrictions it places on third-party apps.
The information came to Gurman as a response by Apple to another piece from Bloomberg about how Apple’s placement of its own apps as built-in defaults was attracting the attention of lawmakers and antitrust regulators, who suggested that it was placing third-party apps at a disadvantage, since it’s harder for developers to compete when Apple’s own apps open by default.
For example, while Google’s Chrome has been available on the iPhone for years, only the most serious fans of the browser bother to install it and use it, since clicking on links in just about any other app will take you to Safari instead.
For its part, Apple says that it uses its own in-house default apps to “create a seamless user experience, while improving performance, battery life, security and privacy,” and also points to the millions of apps available on the App Store, many of which are successful competitors to Apple’s own apps. Still, the company is likely going to have to make a stronger case to explain its policies in response to a recent letter from the U.S. House of Representatives demanding that Apple disclose its internal executive communications relating to this issue and several others as part of an ongoing probe by U.S. lawmakers into anticompetitive behaviour by big tech companies.
Making Siri Play Nice
As a first step, however, Apple told Gurman that an upcoming software refresh will allow third-party messaging applications such as WhatsApp and Skype to be able to come up directly in response to Siri commands to send messages or place calls.
The change is apparently already in the works as part of a software update expected to arrive later this year, however rather than simply letting users choose their defaults for Siri, Apple says it will intelligently default to the apps that people use the most frequently to communicate with their contacts.
It also sounds like it will do this on a per-contact basis. So if you regularly communicate with your spouse or partner via Messages and another friend via WhatsApp, Siri will remember this and use the appropriate app for each contact without you having to specify it. This seems to be an extension based on the same logic that Apple has built into its new Share Sheet in iOS 13, where suggested sharing contacts now appear, along with a default messaging method for each based on how you’ve shared things with them in the past.
Much like basic Siri support, the new feature will apparently require developers to enable support for the new capabilities in their apps, but it seems like a safe bet that most major messaging apps will be quick to do so. Further, although Apple says this capability is only coming to messaging apps for now, it expects to later expand it to phone apps. There’s still no word on whether Apple plans to expand this to other Siri features, like setting reminders and calendar appointments or playing music; apps like Spotify gained the ability to use Siri as of iOS 13, but for now users still have to tell Siri that they want to use Spotify instead of Apple Music with each and every request — something that seems especially likely to attract the ire of antitrust regulators.
What About Other Default Apps?
While seeing an opening in the walled garden is encouraging, Apple’s comments suggest that they’re only focusing on opening up Siri right now. There’s still no word on whether you’ll someday be able to open maps links in Google Maps, or web links in Google Chrome.
To be clear, however, Apple has long allowed third-party apps to launch each other, and in fact many popular apps give users the ability to choose another browser, email client, and mapping service, but this has to be specifically added by each developer, and in the absence of this, Apple’s own default apps still rule the iPhone.