Apple and the Built-In Advantage

Marques Brownlee has a great video this week on Apple’s ability to disrupt product categories with better integration. Take a break and watch it if you haven’t already — like everything from MKBHD, it goes down easy.

The basic idea is evergreen, and is in no way specific to Apple. Smaller companies make products that build upon, or fill gaps within, platforms from larger companies. The best of those ideas — ideas that truly would be better “built in”, eventually do get built in. The small innovators need to adapt or die (or get acquired, and become the built-in version).

Brownlee cites Watson, which Apple famously “Sherlocked”. But as Brownlee notes, the version of Sherlock that drew inspiration (to say the least) from Watson was Sherlock 3. Apple was already on the path of building a system-wide search feature into MacOS. And today, it’d be silly to consider MacOS or iOS without Spotlight. A feature like Spotlight is table stakes now, even though Watson was incredibly innovative 20 years ago. (Yeah, that’s right — 20 years!)

Yet today there are a number of Spotlight-like utilities for the Mac that continue to thrive, despite Spotlight being built into the system — LaunchBar, Alfred, and newcomer (and recent DF sponsor) Raycast, to name just three.1 The trick to remaining useful as a Spotlight-like utility after Apple built Spotlight into the OS is to do more. Spotlight is designed for everyone to use — it’s simple and only does simple things. LaunchBar/Alfred/Raycast keep the simple things simple but also make complex things possible (to borrow a line from Larry Wall and Alan Kay).

The problem for a company like Tile — to name one high-profile company that is not pleased by Apple’s entry into its market — is that location tags are inherently simple, and Apple’s Find My network is bigger and better than Tile’s device network. Everything about AirTags is better than Tile, if you’re an iOS user. So it goes. If the answer to the question “Would this add-on be better, and be useful to many users, if it were built into the system?” is yes, you should expect it to be built into the system sooner or later.

If you have a good idea for a third-party product on a big platform, you need to expect that the platform maker will eventually use your idea. If they don’t, maybe it wasn’t that good an idea in the first place. If they do, you should be ready to keep your product viable by going further than the platform maker is willing to go. Target the enthusiast/professional/power user market. If your idea doesn’t have room for an enthusiast/professional/power user tier — hello, Tile — again, maybe it wasn’t that great an idea in the first place, or it was simply a good idea whose time as a viable product has passed. You can say that’s a shame, but it’s hard for me to buy that Tile has been wronged.

Benedict Evans, two years ago:

In 1988, this application let you print spreadsheets… sideways. Today, it’s an option in the print dialogue box. Back then, it cost the equivalent of $150 in 2019 dollars.

Search-and-replace within a spreadsheet was a separate $200 standalone utility. Landscape printing and search-and-replace were innovations at one point. Everything is an innovation at some point. But things that should be built in eventually will be built in, and innovators need to design with that in mind.

  1. Needless to say, there are no third-party Spotlight-like utilities for iOS or iPadOS, because third-party apps have no ability to run system-wide there. System-wide utilities are, to my mind, one of the defining differences between the Mac and iOS. ↩︎