“Did you know, there’s an app where you can arrange your photos in a grid and get it printed as a poster? The app’s icon is a pretty butterfly …,” said a friend.

“Wait,” I wanted to say, this smells like a particular company’s advertising wrapped up in an initially appealing but surely very limited functionality, designed to suck you in to their marketing. Don’t you know you can arrange your photos in a grid with any general-purpose editing software, and there are lots of companies who will print the resulting image for you?

So what you mean is “There’s an Ad for That”, an ad-app.

I’m reminded of a Weetabix promotion that I fell for as a 1980s child — send in three tokens plus postage cost and get a free computer game, “Weetabix versus the Titchies”. The game arrived (on a very short cassette tape) and was trivial and boring, like a first try before the author figured out what would make it either fun to play or visually pleasing.

But let’s think about why this mindset is prevalent.

I didn’t say what I wanted to say, because I know there isn’t an ideal alternative at the user’s fingertips. I know lots of programs (apps) exist that can arrange images in a grid. I’m equally sure it would be a comparative hassle for an ordinary user to do this task with them. Why would smartphone users turn to general-purpose software when ad-apps are so easy? And why should they?

You want to be careful about getting into the habit of downloading special-purpose apps that do trivial things. The app store managers try to check that each app is honest, but trivial ad-apps are quick and easy to write and will be submitted in ever increasing numbers and bad ones will slip through the net more and more often. Unfortunately this line of argument never has persuaded most people.

Instead we need to make the open alternative solutions easy to access. We should be making sure that open-source or at least non-vendor-tied general apps are provided and widely known, and that basic simple programmability is built in, like how you could turn on any 1980s home computer and immediately type “PLOT 20,20 : DRAW 20,40 : CIRCLE 10” and the computer would draw a lollipop. How many people know how to instruct a smartphone (or even a desktop computer) to do a simple task like that, but one relevant to today’s needs, such as forwarding your photos from WhatsApp to your online photo web site? Why are the means to accomplish such tasks not readily accessible and clearly described in the smartphone’s help screens?

It’s really not a problem to have and use an ad-app that sells photo grid posters. That’s not my point. I don’t suggest you uninstall that particular one. What interests me is the social mindset about such things, where it may lead, and what software development directions might help to redress the balance.

Permit me to end on a stretched simile. Trying to understand the sociology of what’s going on in the world of ad-apps, perhaps we could compare it with the popularity of quick-fix nutritional supplements: here’s a pill you can buy that’s all natural and will make you happy and energetic (yeah, right). Some people selling some of those some of the time is mostly harmless, just as long as our society isn’t taken in as a whole and mostly continues to recognize the true healthy options, and to have those options widely available in the shops.