Apple’s Design Awards nominees highlight indies and startups, largely ignore AI (except for Arc)

With its list of Apple Design Awards finalists, Apple is celebrating indie apps and startups over bigger tech firms — including those offering AI chatbots.

At a time when its App Store model has been called into question by legislators and regulators alike, Apple’s annual list of what it considers the best and most technically innovative software available on its platform is turning its attention to the little guy. There’s no ChatGPT to be found on Apple’s list of finalists, for example. Instead, Apple favors small to midsize app makers like Copilot Money, SmartGym, recipe app Crouton, creative app Procreate Dreams, Gentler Streak and others, as well as those from venture-backed startups like the creativity app Rooms and the reimagined web browser Arc Search.

The latter has incorporated AI with an agent that browses for you and a new feature that lets you ask questions by raising the phone to your ear to “Call Arc,” but it’s the only app on the list with a description that references the technology that has taken the App Store — and the tech industry at large — by storm over the past year.

Though ChatGPT launched last year to record downloads, both Apple and Google avoided naming it their “app of the year.” The ADAs would have given Apple another opportunity to nod to the innovation, but it’s again overlooked.

Rather, Apple’s finalist list looks to indie games like Rytmos from Copenhagen-based Floppy Club; a match-three puzzler finity on Apple Arcade; The Wreck from independent Paris-based games studio The Pixel Hunt; The Bear from German self-described “weird bunch of creatives” Mucks Games; and others.

The non-game apps Apple chose to highlight this year are also often indie efforts, like Meditate, a meditation timer from an indie developer, RhythmicWorks Software, based in India; a sun-tracking app Sunlitt, from a small team led by indie developer Nicholas Mariniello, based in Italy; drawing app Dudel Draw from indie outfit Silly Little Apps in the U.S.; journaling app Bears Gratitude by Australian developer Isuru Wanasinghe; and Things Inc.’s Rooms, a creative app for designing imaginative spaces in an 8-bit style, designed by ex-Googlers and backed by a16z. (Apple doubly blessed Rooms, nominating it in two categories, in fact.)

That’s not to say there aren’t some larger developers on the list, like South Korea’s Neowiz, nominated for its Lies of P title, 505 Games’ Death Stranding Director’s Cut; Honkai: Star Rail from Genshin Impact creator HoYoverse; and Activision’s Call of Duty: Warzone Mobile, for example. But in those cases, Apple is making its picks in part due to their use of Apple technologies, like MetalFX or optimizations for its M1 and higher chips (… or perhaps their use of in-app purchases!).

Other titles getting the nod this year include What the Car?, NYT Games, Hello Kitty Island Adventure, Cityscapes: Sim Builder, How We Feel, Ahead: Emotions Coach, The Bear, Lost in Play, Wavelength, Little Nightmares, and a small handful of apps and games that were built for the Vision Pro, like Blackbox, Loóna, Synth Riders, plus djay, NBA and Sky Guide. Notably, several of these were originally built for iOS and then brought to the Vision Pro.

An “Inclusivity” section also boosts Apple’s global app community, including members in the EU where regulation is underway via the Digital Markets Act. In this section, Apple nominations include an app for low-vision users oko (Belgium), the diversity-focused Complete Anatomy 2024 (Ireland), an app for neurodivergent users, Tiimo (Denmark), plus games Unpacking sold by digital storefront Humble Bundle, Quadline from Ukraine’s Kovalov Ivan, and Crayola Adventures.

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