In the iOS and Mac app stores, newcomer generalist apps are dead. Long live the new wave of hyperfocused apps.
This point was inevitable given both stores have reached a saturation point. There are so many calendars, text editors, todo lists, weather forecasts and photo editors – to name just a few categories – that it’s increasingly rare for any newcomer to stand out. Several success stories emerge early (e.g. Omnifocus and Todo for todo lists, Camera+ in the photo department) receive positive coverage, gain a user base and iterate. Meanwhile most competitors flounder and struggle.
Yet developers are opting out of this Darwinian cycle by going very deep, singular and focused with their app functionality. I wouldn’t use the term “minimal” because some are loaded with options and customization for power users. “Hyperfocused” fits better as each app’s direction is simple and straightforward. Where a generalist app might have ten features, a hyperfocused app has one, but executes that one feature with depth, polish, and well thought out design.
Not every app of this style can be a winner – their very focus makes them divisive – but a few have clicked well with my workflow: Drafts and Dark Sky for iOS and Take Five for the Mac.
Unlike other more generalist text editors that expect a setup process for new documents, Drafts presents you with a blank document and keyboard on every launch. There’s no required taps for a new document location or file type; open the app and you’re ready to type with little lag. Drafts at its core feels like the default Notes app with a serious speed and UI upgrade and that alone should appeal to many.
But speed is only a fraction of Drafts full functionality. A tap of an icon below the document reveals a full action list. You can copy to the clipboard, email, send to a Dropbox folder, tweet the content and send the text to other iOS apps. I use it almost every day for ideas capture, drafting Tweets, sending interesting links to Dropbox and writing extended emails.
For weather I’ve had the My-Cast app on my home screen for over a year. Its got plenty of information and accurate, but generally a bit sluggish and the visuals need serious work. Also before heading outside I have to tap through several screens just to determine if there’s rain in the immediate future.
Enter Dark Sky, an app that’s singular purpose is to tell you if it’s going to rain in the next hour. After starting the app you get a graph and text description that measures the severity and chance of rain. The app excels in its detail – the graph can convey at a glance when an incoming storm will peak or when short gaps in the rain will emerge. Text descriptions are highly descriptive (e.g. “light rain for 14 min”). If you want something more visual, a great looking radar is a tap away. The whole package is fast, accurate and reliable. It’s found a nice home on my second iPhone screen.
I’m a heavy iTunes and Spotify user on my Mac, yet the UI of each app is cumbersome and bulky. The row based, options everywhere design works well for heavy lifting but 95% of the time I just want to know the details on what’s currently playing.
To address this UI bloat, several iTunes and Spotify mini player apps have popped up. I tried both Simplify and Bowtie, two popular options. Yet while both did the job, I wasn’t crazy about their memory footprint and occasionally rough visuals.
That led me to Take Five, an option by Iconfactory, the design shop responsible for Twitterrific, xScope, and Flare. It’s a now playing visualizer pared down to the essentials: album art, song, album, and artist. Yet in targeting such a simple feature set, IconFactory delivers a really well thought out experience. Its got best in class visuals with a cool blue and black color palette. Keyboard support extends to a show/hide hotkey for the music app you’re using, be it iTunes, Spotify, Rdio, or five other players. You can turn on a Growl-like auto notification that pops up the mini player briefly when the track changes (with Spotify’s often shoddy Growl integration this is an especially useful feature.) Take Five’s main ‘hook’ is in its pause functionality; with a keyboard shortcut or icon click you can pause your music and have it auto fade in after a set period (hence ‘Take Five’). It’s a cool perk for quick breaks.