The Problems With Abandoned Apps

Marc Zeedar, writing in TidBits last month:

The looming threat that I see is abandoned apps. They have always been cluttering the edges of the App Store to an extent, but the number of abandoned apps has grown lately for three reasons:

  • The age of the App Store is such that even many wildly popular and successful apps have reached their natural end of life. It’s rare even in the desktop world for an app to exist for more than decade — technology just changes too much for many programs to stay relevant. Mobile apps live fast and die young.

  • Apple recently began deleting apps that developers haven’t updated in years, under the assumption that they aren’t being supported.

  • While Apple has required that apps be compiled for 64-bit for over a year, old 32-bit apps won’t even launch in iOS 11 (see “Apple to Deprecate 32-bit iOS Apps,” 15 May 2017).

Individually, none of these factors would be cause for undue alarm. But bringing all three together could result in a catastrophic tsunami for smaller developers.

In Zeedar’s case, nearly one in four apps he has on his iPhone and iPad are unsupported in iOS 11 because they’re 32-bit only. My hunch is that his case is an outlier; I have just two apps in 209 on my iPhone that are unsupported and a similar number on my iPad.

But even if you only have a couple of abandoned apps on your iPhone, you might still find the upgrade to iOS 11 somewhat jarring. One of the unsupported apps on my phone is Birdhouse. I forgot to export draft tweets from it prior to upgrading, so I’m pretty sure they’re gone for good, unless I feel like monkeying around in the file system. That’s not catastrophic data loss by any measure — it’s not even data loss, really — but it still sucks.

No, I haven’t used Birdhouse in a long time. Yes, I was warned upon trying to open it in iOS 10 that it was a 32-bit app and would be unsupported at some point in the future. No, I did not take action because it wasn’t a priority for me at the time. Yes, I understand that’s pretty short-sighted.

If this was MacOS, I could simply root around in the file system or find another app to open the same files. But that obviously isn’t always the case on iOS. Because it’s a sandboxed, tightly-controlled system, there aren’t shared data stores for apps. That’s great for security, privacy, and every other advantage that has ever been brought up during any debate about it — if I were in charge of iOS, I’m not sure I’d change that model. However, it is a model that exacerbates the effects of an abandoned app.

The solution is to use apps that support Dropbox or iCloud storage options. That doesn’t exactly fix apps which are abandoned today, though, does it?