95: RIP Storm

I’ve been without a weather app on my phone for almost a week now. On May 24, through some combination of laziness, spite, and GDPR, Weather Underground’s Storm app shut down.

The writing had been on the wall for iPhone X users for months, even before official warnings came. Long after every other app I use on a daily basis had pushed an iPhone X update, Storm remained letterboxed. But despite the ugliness, it was still the only app that put all the weather data that I wanted in one place, and it stayed on my homescreen.

The end is nigh. 

The end is nigh. 

Then weird things began to happen. A minor release didn’t change the interface, but introduced a bug where users who’d paid to remove ads started seeing them again. The issue was resolved — at least eliminating third-party ads — but soon that slot began to plug “Storm Radar”, an app by a different developer but with very similar branding. You really want to use Storm Radar. It’s great. It’s by our new corporate overlords, The Weather Channel. You know, the people whose website used to be the best litmus test for the effectiveness of your ad blocker. Go on, try it, you'll like it.

I did try it, and I can say with no reservations: Storm Radar is a bad app. It feels like a Windows app ported to iOS. Banner ads float in the middle of nowhere on the iPhone X screen (and the option to pay for their removal is gone). Its map tiles and color scheme are hideous. It has no 3D touch actions on its Springboard icon. And worst of all, it's a one-trick pony. Granted, that trick — good predictive radar animations — is unmatched in any other iOS app. Except, of course, for old Storm, which separated past and future radar, avoiding the display and navigation bugs present in Storm Radar.

Having dismissed Storm Radar as Bad, I ignored it and continued using Storm. Until the dire warnings began. "Upgrade required!" (Remember, to an app with a similar icon, different name, and different developer — perhaps putting that message in violation of App Store rules.) Then "3 DAYS LEFT", 2, 1, and 0. "This app is no longer supported." It functioned for a few more hours, and then, it would seem, Weather Underground revoked their own API key so it displays blank maps, blank forecasts, blank graphs.

In one sense, this was a straightforward simplification of a bloated app catalog. After the merger, one company was managing three iPhone weather apps: Storm, Storm Radar, and Wunderground. They cut it to two, but only after creating the problem by developing Storm Radar in the first place. And they eliminated easy access to detailed data that weather nerds like myself love. I want to see the pressure in millibars. I want to see a graph of the dew point over the next week. And when there's a tornado warning at 3AM and I'm debating whether I really need to go to the basement, I want to tap on a storm system and see the 0-3km vertical shear. (It was super high. I went to the basement.)

These features are now buggier and more fragmented than before. Storm Radar shows shear, but not reliably. WunderStation — yes, a fourth app, but only for iPad! — shows me the graphs I want. Nothing puts them all in one place as well as Storm already did.

And that's the worst part: a company with great data has no incentive to deliver a good iOS experience. A parallel problem has arisen with Electron apps replacing native apps on Mac OS. And why should Weather Underground spend money developing great apps when the market price of an app is free? A lousy app or bad web-based experience or even nothing at all earns the same revenue. Weather Underground at least licenses their data through an API, with fees high enough that indie developers make it a paid option. But that passes the risk onto small companies that shouldn't be shouldering it for a giant corporation.

So there's some small hope that someone else will make the next great weather app, and charge me a fair price to send nearly all of that money along to Weather Channel HQ. But even more than when I discovered Storm a couple years ago, I wouldn't bet on it. And that, rather than the missing icon on my homescreen, is the true loss.