If there’s one thing Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC) makes clear, it’s that Apple loves the programmers who make software for iOS and OS X. Partly, the love is from Apple’s long-standing corporate culture: The term “software evangelist” originated at Apple, and the company spent decades trying to lure (and keep) programmers back when the Mac was a footnote with marketshare in the single digits.
But at the same time, Apple isn’t above pulling the rug out from under its own developers. Overnight, a company or lone programmer can go from having a leading app with rave reviews and decent sales to competing directly with Apple—and that almost never goes well.
In fact, it’s happened so often in Apple’s history that it even has a name: “getting Sherlocked.”
Where the phrase “Getting Sherlocked” by Apple comes from
“Getting Sherlocked” usually means being outsmarted the way Sherlock Holmes would outsmart Professor Moriarty and other ne’er-do-wells. However, the phrase took on new meaning in the Apple universe in 2002, when Apple announced Mac OS X 10.2 Jaguar. At the time, Mac OS X’s integrated file-finding tool was called Sherlock. Sherlock debuted with Mac OS 8.5 in 1998 and could search a Mac’s files, but via simple plug-ins could also search eBay, look up stock prices, find flight information, and do a few more things. Sherlock was cool but distinctly slow and clunky, so few people used it, and in 2001 Karelia Software decided to do one better with a product called Watson.
Watson focused on Internet search, bypassing crappy Web browsers to offer tailored search results including TV listings, Amazon product listings, movies, recipes, shipment tracking, image search—you know, useful stuff—with a responsive and slick interface. Watson was a hit with users—at least, until 2002, when in a remarkable coincidence Apple introduced Sherlock 3, which sported almost all of Watson’s key features.
No one thought Apple was playing fair with Sherlock 3, but everyone also knew Watson effectively died at that moment. Sherlock 3 wasn’t the first time Apple had stomped on a third-party developer, but Watson was the first app to be “Sherlocked.” And the name stuck.
Who’s getting Sherlocked by Apple now?
Now that Apple has announced key new features in OS X Yosemite and iOS 8, who’s getting Sherlocked this time around? The list is surprisingly long.
Dropbox: Cloud-storage operator Dropbox may be the company with the most to lose from Apple’s Yosemite and iOS 8 announcements. iCloud Drive will enable users to sync any kind of file across all their Apple devices—precisely the way many have used Dropbox for years. Moreover, iCloud Photo Library will enable users to store every photo and video they shoot in iCloud (taking on Dropbox’s own photo- and video-sharing features) and Yosemite’s Mail Drop will enable users to share files (up to 5GB in size) without body-slamming their mailbox quotas.
Mail Drop competes directly with Dropbox’s feature that lets users share links to files even with non-Dropbox users — and DropBox will probably never be able to match Apple’s integration with OS X Mail.
Other services like WeTransfer and DropSend will also get bitten by Apple’s new features, but Dropbox is more vulnerable than others due its long-standing presence in both OS X and iOS. However, Dropbox is also resilient: Back in 2009, Steve Jobs looked into acquiring Dropbox, warning the company iCloud was going to happen with or without them. iCloud happened and Dropbox is still around — and has lots of users on non-Apple platforms. But its days as the dominant cloud storage and sharing service for Apple devices might be numbered.
Alfred: In a move eerily reminiscent of the original Sherlock, popular OS X add-on app Alfred will be getting squeezed by Yosemite’s improved Spotlight search tool. Spotlight is moving off the menu bar to the center of the screen and will offer predictive typing and integrate not just local files, contacts, email, and documents but results from Wikipedia and Internet search engines (Apple mentions Bing specifically, not Google).
But that’s not all: Spotlight will also do instant conversions (like currency and metric units), search for music, movies, or TV available from iTunes, search the App Stores for software, and offer integrated Maps support. Spotlight won’t subsume all that Alfred can do (we like Alfred’s text snippets and workflows), but fewer people will have any reason to consider replacing Spotlight.
Alfred founders Andrew and Vero Pepperrell noting that “a few users have voiced concerns,” wrote that their service and OS X 10.10 should be complementary.
“What you have to remember is that Spotlight’s primary objective is to search your files and a small handful of pre-determined web sources. Meanwhile, Alfred’s primary objective is to make you more productive on your Mac with exceptional and powerful features.”
Snapchat: Snapchat‘s claim to fame is that messages, photos, and videos sent on the service have a short lifespan so they can’t come back and bite users later. Even though that was never really true, Apple is adding Tap to Talk to send audio, photos, or videos to Messages recipients—and those items are stored only temporarily on devices so as not to overload storage. Shared items won’t have pre-defined lifespans like SnapChat, but Apple says Messages is the most-used app in iOS—and, unlike SnapChat, Messages has pretty solid security foundation.
Also in this boat? Voxer, which just saw its signature push-to-talk feature integrated into Messages.
Of course, neither Voxer nor SnapChat need Apple—both have strong presences on Android and other platforms. But their iOS stance will change once Messages’ new features debut — including long-overdue improvements to group messaging.
very flattering to see Apple “borrow” numerous WhatsApp features into iMessage in iOS 8 #innovation
— jan koum (@jankoum) June 2, 2014
Lapse It and other time tapse apps: Want a whole category of apps that just got Sherlocked? Try time lapse camera apps for iPhone and iPad. Apple didn’t call the feature out at the WWDC keynote, but the iOS Camera app is getting a Time-lapse mode, enabling users to snap images at intervals to make a montage—or an awesome stop-motion movie. It’s sure to be a fun feature … and pretty sure to erode iOS sales of apps like OSnap! Time Lapse, Lapse It, and maybe even iStopMotion for iPad.
Skitch: Evernote’s Skitch for Mac enables users to insert shapes, sketches, and notes into documents to mark them up and get a point across—a handy collaboration tool. Guess what’s coming to the Mail app in OS X Yosemite? Yep: the ability to draw shapes and make annotations on pictures and documents right within Mail. Mail doesn’t take over all of Skitch’s features, but it does enable users to add shapes and arrows to images using a Multi-Touch trackpad, photograph their signature with a built-in camera, and fill out PDF forms without leaving Mail. Folks already using Skitch don’t need to change, but fewer Mac users will see a need for products like Skitch once Yosemite hits the streets.
Amazon & Microsoft cloud services: Lots of mobile apps really have two parts: the app on the device, and the cloud-based Internet services where they store and retrieve data. Many of those apps rely on the likes of Amazon Web Services and Microsoft Azure, but now Apple is getting into the app-hosting game with CloudKit, offering developers public and private database hosting, anonymous app sign-in with Apple IDs, and lots of storage: up to 1 petabyte (1,000 TB) for assets, 10 TB for data, 5 TB/day in asset transfer and 50GB/day in data transfer. And it’s all free. It’s tough to compete with free, so more apps that need cloud-based support will be iOS-first … and perhaps stay iOS-only.
Is being Sherlocked a death sentence?
Plenty of apps survive being Sherlocked: an example is Instapaper, which was targeted by Safari’s Reading List in iOS 5 and Safari. (So were Readability and Read It Later (now Pocket). Guess what? They’re all still around.
In today’s multiplatform world, being Sherlocked doesn’t have the same impact it did back in 2002. Lots of mobile apps are available on Android and maybe even Windows Phone or BlackBerry, not just iOS. Many desktop apps are available for Windows and Mac, and plenty of services and apps are available to anyone with a modern Web browser. The bottom line is that losing some competitiveness on iOS or OS X might not be a catastrophe for a business or everyday users.
However, the deeper an app or service is tied to Apple’s platforms — like an iOS- or Mac-only app — the greater the risk when Apple decides to take an app’s ideas as its own. At that point, developers have to decide whether to try to out-Apple Apple (tough to do), diversify to other platforms (not always possible), or go home.
Of course, Apple doesn’t always hit a home run when it Sherlocks an app. Remember Sherlock 3? That was the last version: Apple killed it just a couple years later in Mac OS X 10.4. So that worked out well.