About That Washington Post Story on Apple Copying Features From Top Apps in the App Store

As referenced in today’s letter to Apple from the House Judiciary Committee, Reed Albergotti writing for The Washington Post last week (“How Apple Uses Its App Store to Copy the Best Ideas”):

Clue, a popular app women use to track their periods, has risen to near the top of Apple’s Health and Fitness category.

It could be downhill from here.

Apple plans this month to incorporate some of Clue’s core functionality such as fertility and period prediction into its own Health app that comes pre-installed in every iPhone and is free — unlike Clue, which is free to download but earns money by selling subscriptions and services within its app. Apple’s past incorporation of functionality included in other third-party apps has often led to their demise. […]

When Apple made a flashlight part of its operating system in 2013, it rendered instantly redundant myriad apps that offered that functionality. Everything from the iPhone’s included “Measure” app to its built-in animated emoji were originally apps in the App Store.

The thrust of the Post’s story is clear from its headline. But I don’t think it holds any water. What’s the alternative? For Apple never to add any features to the OS that exist in third-party apps? Of course fertility and period-tracking should be features in Apple’s Health app. If anything they should have been there sooner. Apple didn’t need to look at Clue’s popularity to know this. One of the factors every successful developer considers is whether or not an idea might be something Apple (or Google, or Microsoft, or whoever the platform vendor is) might incorporate as a feature in the system. The more basic the feature, the more likely that is. The flashlight is a perfect example. It’s so obviously a good feature for the system that it’s a button on the lock screen — one of only two, right next to the camera.

When Apple implements a feature or app idea, they do it in a way that has the broadest possible appeal (or at least try to). The key to competing with Apple as a third-party developer is to focus on segments of the audience that want more than the basics. Apple’s Mail, Podcasts, Notes, and Calendar apps (to name just a few) are well-done and much-used. And all of those categories have very successful third-party alternatives. Apple improved Reminders significantly this year, but I don’t think Things or OmniFocus (or any of the other popular to-do/task managers) have anything to worry about.

The misfortune of having an idea copied by Apple even has an industry term. “Getting Sherlocked” harks back to the time Apple’s desktop search tool called “Sherlock” borrowed many of the features of a third-party companion tool called “Watson,” which no longer exists.

Two points here. First, Sherlock doesn’t exist any more either — the entire concept wasn’t long for this world. Second, and more importantly, the Sherlock/Watson thing happened in 2002 — 6 years before the iOS App Store and 8 years before the Mac App Store. The debate over what’s fair game for Apple (or Google, or Microsoft) to copy from third-party developers has nothing to do with app stores. A popular app is a popular app, and the platform vendors have always known all the popular apps.

Back in October 2003, I wrote about a controversy in which a third-party developer accused Apple of stealing their Command-Tab switcher, even though the features Apple was adding dated back to Microsoft Windows 3 a decade earlier. Ideas are cheap. My concluding sentence in that piece works just as well today:

When a utility is designed to compensate for a hole in Mac OS X, the developer should not expect the hole to remain unfilled by Apple forever.