Apple co-opting third-party app features in iOS 5: Fair or Foul?

Mon, Jun 13, 2011

Analysis, Featured, News

Apple’s iOS 5 update brings with it a number of long sought after changes, from a revamped notification system to the ability to use the volume button to take a photo. The unfortunate but inevitable fallout that results from a major iOS update like this is that Apple often replicates the functionality of third party software, which can effectively put some developers out of business.

Some of the more high profile apps that might be a little nervous in the wake of Apple’s iOS 5 introduction include Boxcar which is a great app to keep track of system notifications, Instapaper from Marco Ament which now has to compete with Safari’s Reading List, Remember the Milk which is similar to Apple’s new Reminders feature, not to mention a few jailbreak apps that enabled things like wi-fi syncing and notification displays on the lockscreen.

So with that said, it’s not surprising that some folks are wary of a scenario where Apple routinely cherry picks the best features from some of the more popular apps from third party developers.

Addressing the issue, the Contrast blog rehashes an old Paul Graham quote about developing for Microsoft.

Writing desktop software has become a lot less fun. If you want to write desktop software now you do it on their terms, calling their APIs and working around their buggy OS. And if you manage to write something that takes off, you may find that you were merely doing market research for them.

Can that analogy be made to Apple’s iOS platform?

Well, it’s a layered issue with a few competing interests in play.

Now first off, there really is no guarantee that Apple won’t spot a feature it likes and implement it into iOS, especially if it’s something that’s glaringly missing – i.e a notification system. In these types of scenarios, it’s important to remember that Apple has an interest in delivering the best user experience possible and is not terribly worried about how its actions will affect small time developers. That’s just the nature of the business.

That said, it’s in the interest of developers to create software that Apple will likely never incorporate. A nifty utility that enhances basic iOS features is prime breeding ground for an in-house Apple competitor down the road. That’s just the nature of the beast and something developers should be cognizant of from the get go.

Now yes, this can be decidedly unfair from the perspective of a developer, but Apple’s in the business of making money. It just wouldn’t make sense for Apple to sacrifice functionality in the interest of keeping an assortment of third party developers afloat.

Apple always look out for their customers. They will always look to improve the experience. If that means adding software to their platform then so be it. If that software is in direct competition with your software, then so be it. If they roll out the software as a free update across all operating systems, leaving you for dead, then so be it.

Their ball. Their game. Their rules.

It’s also important to keep in mind new while features implemented by Apple may appear to have been directly lifted from another app, said feature may have a patent history that predates all third-party developers. Let’s take notifications for example, and more specifically, displaying notifications on the iOS lockscreen.

Back in 2008, a number of folks in the blogosphere accused Apple of patenting an idea for lockscreen notifications that it stole from a jailbreak app called Intelliscreen. Indeed, the patent filing from Apple looked eerily similar to the notification scheme implemented by the Intelliscreen app. The only problem, though, was that Apple’s patent was filed in June 2007 and Intelliscreen wasn’t released until May 2008. And now, 4 years later, people are once again accusing Apple of lifting the idea for lockscreen notifications when, in reality, it’s been on Apple’s radar for years.

Similarly, Apple files hundreds of patent applications every year and it’s entirely plausible that many of the features Apple is accused of stealing have been stewing over in Cupertino for some time.

Now, that’s not to say that Apple doesn’t steal good ideas. Indeed, Steve Jobs has famously said that Apple has been shameless about stealing great ideas.

Take the new Reading List feature in Safari which essentially offers the same functionality as Instapaper. Did Apple recognize the utility and popularity of Instapaper and decide to lift the idea and integrate it right into Safari? That’s what it looks like. But oddly enough, instapaper developer Marco Ament isn’t feeling the heat from Apple (at least not publicly) and actually makes a case that Apple’s “borrowing” of his feature may actually increase Instapaper sales.

When iOS 5 and Lion ship, Apple will show a much larger percentage of iOS-device owners that saving web pages to read later is a useful workflow and can dramatically improve the way they read.

If Reading List gets widely adopted and millions of people start saving pages for later reading, a portion of those people will be interested in upgrading to a dedicated, deluxe app and service to serve their needs better. And they’ll quickly find Instapaper in the App Store

At the end of the day, Apple will undoubtedly work to incrementally improve iOS functionality, with the fallout being that utility apps are likely to get usurped in the process. One commenter on a Hacker News thread on this topic chimed in, “If your business model is taking what someone else does and doing it just a tiny bit better this comes with the territory. You either need to live with that or keep doing it better so they don’t catch up.”

Apple’s charged with improving the value of their products, both via hardware and software. Sometimes this results in features that Apple may not have thought of first, or perhaps features that they took a while to finally implement. On the whole, though, shouldn’t we want Apple to do this?

Let’s imagine you’re a third party app developer who had a nifty cut and paste app back in the day, can you really fault Apple for coming up with their own solution a few months later?

In the end, business is competitive. You have no inherent right to build software or sell it on a given platform or in a given store. The fact that Apple, Google, Microsoft, HP, Amazon and so on make worldwide distribution for indie devs so easy is completely 100% incredible.

Just try and sell a physical copy your $0.99 todo list app or game at every Wal-Mart, Target, Best-Buy, Gamestop, Verizon/At&t/Sprint shop in the country then maybe you’ll have an idea of just how good you have it.

Of course, the mere fact that Apple released the iTunes App Store doesn’t give it free reign to do as it pleases with impunity. That said, what sometimes appears to be the co-opting of features is really not. From notifications to wi-fi syncing, are we really supposed to believe that Apple hadn’t thought of these until they came across third party apps?

What say you, folks? Are we giving Apple a free pass here or should we be more open to seeing things from the developers perspective?


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3 Comments For This Post

  1. Phil Grant Says:

    For over two decades now, Apple has added features to it’s operating systems, and given the same excuse it gave at wwdc 2011: so developers can count on them being there. This year, Steve spent a minute detailing the amount of push messages being sent before describing enhancement to notifications and iMessage.

    Prognosticators should note that Steve spent even more time detailing the amount of picture taking being done using iOS devices. I predict the next generation of iDevices will have new photo taking capabilities or enhancements. He already reveled the software improvements in iOS. Hardware improvements are sure to follow. Expect something more dramatic than more pixels!

  2. Joe Says:

    At any time a developer may be ‘outdeveloped’ whether by Apple, or some other developer that can do the same thing better.

  3. Rick Says:

    Apple focuses on quality of features rather than quantity. When Apple creates a thing there are obvious next-step features that are not included. It’s not like Apple released the iPhone and none of its designers never considered cut-and-paste or use of the volume buttons to control the camera shutter. Those ideas are not some amazing feat of innovation—making them work seamlessly in an holistic system is.

    Most third-party developers are releasing tools that augment the existing features in an advanced way that Apple deemed not important enough to focus on for that release. Having those features added in later should not be a surprise.

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