Apple CEO Tim Cook.Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

  • Apple’s iOS 13 update puts the company’s first-party apps front and center, addressing a long-standing criticism that the company’s apps don’t measure up to third-party alternatives.
  • iOS 13 will bring critical updates to apps such as Apple Maps, Reminders, Photos, and Messages, among others.
  • The update comes as smartphone makers are turning to software to differentiate their products, given that smartphone sales are declining worldwide.
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Apple has largely been credited with laying the foundation for the modern smartphone, as its original iPhone from 2007 set the stage for the myriad Android devices used all over the world today.

But while Apple’s hardware played an important role in jump-starting the smartphone era, there’s a key area in which the company had lagged considerably behind rivals like Google: apps and services.

For years, tech critics have lamented Apple’s apps that are built into the iPhone by default for their lack of features compared with alternative third-party apps. Take a look at the most popular apps for the iPhone, and you’ll notice that apps from Google and Facebook make up most of the top 10.

For most of the iPhone’s history, it was impossible to delete unused Apple apps, leaving them idly sitting on a home screen or tucked away in a folder. BuzzFeed News called it Apple’s “junk drawer problem,” a complaint Apple later addressed in iOS 10 by making it possible to uninstall such programs.

Apple’s apps are front and center in iOS 13

dark mode ios 13Apple is making improvements to Maps, Reminders, and Messages, among other first-party apps.Apple

Apple has gradually improved its first-party apps over the years, and iOS 13 feels like the biggest culmination of those efforts yet. Apple’s next major software update for the iPhone is all about improving the company’s apps, including Maps, Reminders, Messages, and Photos.

It’s a critical move that could be increasingly important for Apple as rivals like Google look to software to differentiate their smartphones from the competition as hardware sales slow.

Apple’s Messages app, for example, will soon get the ability for iPhone users to automatically share their name and photo with a recipient, much like third-party communication apps such as WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger.

The Reminders app in iOS 13 is getting an overhaul that automatically organizes reminders and integrates with Apple’s Messages app, giving iPhone users a worthwhile reason to use Apple’s app over third-party favorites like Any.do. Apple has also rebuilt its Maps app from the ground up to include much more detail than the current version. It plans to launch the new-and-improved Maps later this year.

The new version of Apple Maps will also introduce a Look Around feature that lets users explore 360-degree views of a location, much like Google Street View. Plus, Apple’s Photos app will get better at curating your photos and videos in iOS 13 with a new layout that emphasizes important moments and reduces clutter.

Of course, Apple’s software updates typically come with improvements to its apps. iOS 10 was a big year for Apple’s Messages app and Siri, as it allowed third-party app makers to plug into these services for the first time. And Apple’s Photos app has received updates in the past that have helped it catch up to competitors like Google. iOS 11 brought the ability for iPhone users to send money to one another through Messages.

But even so, other releases in recent years have felt more focused on other areas: augmented reality, new productivity features for the iPad, improving Siri’s intelligence, and new operating system features like Screen Time. iOS 13, however, really puts Apple’s apps front and center across the board.

Companies like Apple look to software to stand out as smartphone sales slow

WWDC 2019 iOS 13Apple’s Craig Federighi at WWDC 2019.Brittany Hosea-Small/Getty Images

The updates come as smartphone makers like Apple are struggling to boost sales, resulting in an increased focus on software. Global smartphone sales declined for the sixth consecutive quarter in the first quarter of 2019, according to the International Data Corporation. The research firm partially attributes the declines to the fact that consumers are holding on to their devices for longer periods of time as prices increase, making it difficult to persuade users to upgrade.

Smartphone makers worldwide saw a decline in unit sales in the first quarter of 2019, except for the Chinese electronics giant Huawei, which grew shipments by 50%. Other top vendors including Apple, Samsung, and other Chinese tech giants like Xiaomi and Oppo saw declines in shipments.

Apple has increasingly turned to software and services as a key area of growth to accommodate for slowing iPhone sales. The company’s revenue from digital services grew to $11.5 billion in its fiscal second quarter, up from $9.9 billion in the same quarter one year ago. And it’s looking to expand that number even further by launching new paid subscription services later this year, including Apple TV Plus, which will offer high-budget original series in Apple’s TV app, and a gaming service called Apple Arcade.

The announcements come as technology companies are increasingly focused on services to differentiate their products from one another. Google unveiled a slew of new features coming to the Google Assistant during its developer conference last month, for example, that enable the virtual assistant to perform faster and provide more personal answers to requests. It also launched a feature last year that allows the Google Assistant to screen calls on the user’s behalf that was available only on the company’s newest Pixel phones before rolling out to other devices.

Read more: The most important announcements Google made at its biggest conference of the year

While improving the iPhone’s software certainly strengthens the iPhone’s value proposition, it can also put Apple at odds with the massive ecosystem of third-party developers that helped make its smartphone so popular in the first place. Apple has added more features to the iPhone in recent years that are similar to third-party apps, causing some app makers to worry about looming competition from one of the world’s most valuable companies.

Spotify filed an antitrust complaint with the European Commission in March over Apple’s App Store policies, arguing that the company holds an unfair advantage and limits choice because of the 30% fee it charges on App Store purchases. Apple also recently pulled a number of apps from the App Store that offer tools to manage screen time following the launch of its own similar feature in iOS 12, which left some app makers feeling targeted, as The New York Times reported. The company recently reversed that policy, though the apps have not yet been added back to the App Store.

Apple addressed an important criticism back in 2016 when it gave users the freedom to uninstall unused Apple apps. But if the updates coming in iOS 13 live up to Apple’s hype, iPhone owners won’t want to remove them — or add them to a junk drawer — at all.

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