THE thing software developers fear most is being “sherlocked”. The term was coined in the early 2000s, after Apple updated the Sherlock search tool on its desktop operating system (OS) to do what had just months before been offered by an external application called Watson, created by Karelia Software to complement the Apple tool’s earlier version. Ever since, independent programmers have trembled as they await announcements of what the company plans to include in the latest release.
This year sherlocking has already claimed a number of prominent victims. Most notably, at its recent Worldwide Developers’ Conference Apple said it would provide new data for the Maps app, which had hitherto relied on Google’s cartography. It would also add turn-by-turn satellite navigation (satnav), upsetting Garmin, Navigon and other makers of kit and software for drivers. (TomTom, another leading producer, will license some data to Apple.)
Ditching Google Maps came as a surprise, but is understandable. Google’s app is free, so Apple, which takes a 30% cut of all sales on its App Store, will not forgo revenue by replacing it with its own free service. And, since Google is Apple’s rival for digital supremacy, weaning consumers off its fare might make strategic sense.
Apple’s satnav designs are less clear. Navigational apps are among the App Store’s best selling, so Apple can expect to lose some revenue. Perhaps it is counting on satnav firms to roll out fancier apps to complement its own offerings, which tend to provide the bare essentials that appeal to the largest audience. Apple is unlikely, for instance, to give public-transit directions, warnings about speed cameras, clues about how to avoid toll highways, recommended routes for motorcyclists and plenty of other features that satnav-app makers consider standard.
It would not be the first time sherlocking prompted similar developments. When Apple previewed the features of its latest desktop OS, dubbed Mountain Lion, in February, these included Notifications, which allows software to let users know, either with a fading message or a displayed list, about incoming e-mail, completed downloads, calendar appointment, etc. For years, an identical feature was offered by Growl, and hundreds of Mac programs use Growl’s software interface to allow its pop-up messages.
Notifications diminishes Growl’s appeal, but the developer took it in stride, promising to adopt, adapt and improve. For instance, unlike Notifications, Growl provides backwards compatibility for older releases of Mac OS X, still used by tens of millions of Apple-desktop owners. It will also be updated to work directly with Apple’s new tool. Existing programs which trigger Growl should then be able trigger to Notifications, too, without the need to tweak the programs’ source code.
Karelia, too, continued to develop and sell Watson, whose speed and other attributes were superior to Sherlock’s, and its developer ultimately made a tidy sum by selling it to Sun Microsystems. Sherlocking is a risk for smaller companies. But it can also be an opportunity.
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