Under the Radar

Under the Radar 65: Getting Sherlocked


  welcome to under the radar of show about

  independent iOS app development I'm

  Marco Arment and I'm David Smith under

  the radar is never longer than 30

  minutes so let's get started so today we

  wanted to talk about sure locking which

  is a term that is often strikes fear

  into the hearts of independent

  developers but first before I get into

  the actual like our personal experiences

  with it I didn't want to take a moment

  to explain what it is and where the term

  comes from because it is an entirely

  non-obvious term so it goes back to a

  utility that was written back many many

  many years ago that I can't even

  honestly it was before my time on the

  Mac but there's utility called Watson

  that did something and then Apple came

  along and created and shipped with the

  OS an application called Sherlock which

  did everything that Watson did and

  effectively put Watson out of business

  so Sherlock he has taken on the

  connotation of any time Apple or I guess

  you could probably generalize this to

  you know the platform vendor takes a

  feature or functionality or a whole

  stock in application and copies it and

  ships it sort of by default into the

  operating system which as you would

  expect is often something that is a

  little bit scary for that developer who

  just got copied because now the thing

  that you've been working so hard on

  building the thing that hopefully had

  some kind of unique business you know

  business run around it and was useful to

  customers suddenly everyone gets for

  free and large in some ways it's like

  being the inevitable first thought is

  well I'm out of business now which isn't

  always the case but is something I think

  that we thought we wanted to unpack and

  this is top of mind for me right now

  because I kind of have expectations of

  some of the things that I'm working on

  now that will inevitably be Sherlock

  which we'll talk about a little bit

  later and so it's something that I think

  it's always worth thinking about that

  while on the plus side it's awesome that

  you know when Apple creates capabilities

  and opportunities on their platform you

  know they had a new API

  you know when they added the motion

  coprocessor to the iPhone like that was

  awesome for me I made an app

  called me have a sub susceptor and built

  this whole sort of line of business for

  myself because of that like they created

  that opportunity now if Apple went the

  you know the next step and created their

  own stuff tracker then suddenly it

  becomes you know problematic and

  something that I wouldn't be as excited

  about and that tension between these two

  things so we know what Apple chooses to

  support in terms of like creating an API

  to encourage the development in an area

  and the areas where apple says you know

  what this is so fundamental to the

  applicant you know to the use of this

  device or the use of this operating

  system that we're gonna build this in

  you know it's like if Apple didn't have

  a camera app on the iPhone that would

  feel really weird

  even if third parties could make awesome

  camera apps like it's such a fundamental

  part of it and so you know Apple is in

  this process of gradually expanding out

  what is considered sort of default or

  what comes with it and I think we both

  you and I Marco have some experience

  with this and I think we will start off

  the for this episode is talk a little

  bit about some of our past examples so I

  was wondering if you could start us off

  by telling the story of Instapaper and

  reading lists sure yeah so this was my

  first Sherlock as a developer basically

  I made Instapaper which was a save web

  pages for reading later service back in

  something like 2008 it was really a long

  time ago might even the fall of was 7 it

  was a very long time ago I don't even

  remember right now but ever ad in that

  ballpark and yeah an insta paper was you

  know there's this this fairly successful

  app that is actually still around I

  don't I don't use it anymore but it's

  still around and basically the the idea

  of it is you know you save web pages

  sorry later and you then go into you

  know you're on a page you save it you go

  into the in paper app and you can get a

  list of everything you save and and that

  list syncs between different devices on

  the website you can save things from

  your Mac to read on your phone or our

  iPad so there's like cross-device saving

  and syncing and everything's safe for

  offline use and everything saved in this

  nice like text only customisable nice

  reading view and different parts that

  had been done before but the combin

  of those things was never done before

  and so I kind of felt like I like owned

  that concept which is kind of a naive

  place to be honestly but that's what I

  felt at the time and and then over the

  next coming couple years a couple of

  competitors did the same thing and then

  eventually Apple in say I guess I had to

  look it up in in 2011 Apple announced

  that Mac OS lion would include this

  feature in Safari called reading list

  and at first it was really simple it was

  like you get to save a bookmark to read

  later and it shows up in this list and

  it was basically like a faster version

  of bookmarks there were none of the

  other features there was no cross-device

  sync there was no textview there was no

  like you know mobile version there was

  nothing in iOS about it so at first I

  was like oh well this isn't this I even

  wear these blog posts like this isn't a

  competitor to instigate because it

  doesn't have all these things I'm not

  sure locked yet haha and then over the

  next couple of years like 2012 2008 they

  slowly added pretty much all of the

  other features they they added it to iOS

  they added sync they added offline

  downloading of the pages that you save

  they added their text view which is kind

  of a separate thing and so like anyway

  they basically slowly added all of

  instigators core features and we're

  they've kind of left it alone for the

  last couple years because I think it's

  basically a complete feature at this

  point what instapaper was it is the

  essence of that service and it's missing

  tons and tons of features that

  Instapaper has but it doesn't matter

  what matters is that it's built in and

  it's convenient and it's free and

  everyone has it by default and I kept

  talking like over those over the years

  as reading lists came out and then

  slowly got better and slowly moved more

  into a direct competitor of Instapaper

  I kept telling myself like yeah this is

  fine it's not really gonna compete with

  me it's not gonna affect my sales it

  might even help my sales people are

  gonna find it and then realize they want

  something better and come find mine and

  as far as I can tell I don't I don't

  know if any of those things were true

  in retrospect I mean I I wasn't as good

  of a business person back then not that

  I'm great now but I'm less bad now and

  so it's hard to tell whether various

  business failures or

  were because of other things like my

  pricing decisions at the time or

  marketing decisions or whatever else or

  whether it was because of an because of

  reading lists and and any other

  competition that was out there but the

  main one I think was reading list

  because it was built in and for a while

  like before extensions reading lists had

  way more of a privileged position than I

  did because there were buttons all over

  the OS for adding linkster to reading

  list and you couldn't do that before

  extensions you couldn't have your app

  but up here in those kind of buttons so

  and there's actually still a couple

  places I think like a nail where there's

  still no system share sheet but there's

  a couple of menus that that have like

  open copy and add to reading list so

  there's still a few few places like that

  but anyway so all that time I kept

  thinking like oh I'll be fine I'll still

  be the deluxe option and then oh well

  they're not going to copy all my

  features and basically they're really

  good at copying the features that matter

  and even if they don't copy them all

  they copy a lot that matter and they

  they often are good enough I do think

  there is a danger in sure locking that

  we often want to minimize in our heads

  or deny or try to turn around into a

  positive thing but the reality is when

  when the platform vendor that you're on

  neutralizes the main features that you

  have has an advantage by adding them

  themselves it's a pretty big deal it it

  probably does really affect your

  business there might be cases where

  that's not true but it's certainly not

  going to be a great thing now how much

  of a bad thing it'll be is probably very

  dependent on the situation and on you

  and your products in your customer base

  and in most cases I don't think it's

  going to be incredibly fatal I think

  it's very rare where it's really fatal

  but because you know you can look at the

  other side of this is you can look at

  the apps that are that come by default

  on Macs and iOS devices

  how many note-taking apps are there

  there's been a Notes app on the iPhone

  since day one of the iPhone before there

  were apps there was notes and there was

  weather and there were stocks and all

  these things and now there are

  third-party replacements for all those

  categories there's tons of them and some

  of them do really well so I don't think

  sure locking are having the platform


  the same feature that you do either

  before or after you get there I don't

  think it's fatal to your business but it

  is a large effect on your business like

  there's no denying that when Apple made

  their Notes app better a couple years

  ago and they moved it to cloudkit and

  they made it sink and add all of the

  rich text stuff to it like there's no

  denying that hurt a lot of other notes

  apps pretty badly it there they can

  still exist but it's harder for them to

  exist so like this is a a force that

  moves throughout markets that you need

  to be aware of and it is it is almost

  certainly nothing it's almost certainly

  never good for you like my whole idea

  people will find this and one upgrade to

  a better one pretty sure that's bogus

  in retrospect like it's never good for

  you the only question is how bad is it

  for you and it might not be too horrible

  but that also might change in the future

  so it's definitely something to keep a

  very close eye on yeah and I think

  there's a very what you're saying there

  I think is like the the key I think

  reality that I've come to grips with is

  debate is that something like being sure

  locked is it puts in a tremendous weight

  on the like customer demand for your

  product like it pushes it down quote you

  know substantially it also in some way

  probably creates customer interest in

  your product or in your product category

  but the relative sizes of those two

  forces are very disproportionate I think

  there's a much stronger push down then

  there is a push up and so you'll get a

  few people who are like like you were

  saying the hopeful kind of like yeah you

  know it's just like the built in one but

  better I'm looking for the better thing

  and it's a great story we tell ourselves

  oh but I think it's not just a story

  because I think it's it is true and that

  does happen but it is like for every one

  of those people there's ten people who

  now will never even consider looking for

  something else and so it's a tremendous

  offset down and it's you know I saw my

  example was perhaps slightly less

  dramatic but like I the most significant

  story locking I've ever had was for an

  app that I wrote called emoji plus plus

  which math coin custom keyboards were

  first introduced

  the emoji picker at the time was this

  kind of awful keyboard thing through was

  just a one big massive list of all the

  emojis you could ever find anything

  organized in this very haphazard way and

  so I decided you know what I think I

  have a better way of organizing emoji

  I'm gonna make it so that you can

  they're gonna be organized by category

  and you can quickly jump from category

  to category by moving a slider on the

  edge you know drag dragging if your

  finger up and down that and it had a few

  other kind of bonus features like you

  could add favorites and that type of

  features but the most part it was just

  this very quick easy to understand

  organized version of add emoji keyboard

  I released it it went well had a nice

  big launched and did fairly well in the

  next version of iOS there was how do you

  think was not even the next major

  version I think it was in a point

  release it was qualms he had like there

  was very quickly a new emoji keyboard in

  iOS that was roughly the same as emoji

  plus plus but turned 90 degrees and I

  have no way of saying I have no way of

  knowing if that was based on emoji plus

  plus if that was something that had been

  in works for months you know I'd have no

  visibility into that but the reality was

  now the thing that made my app unique

  and special and interesting was

  completely gone because that app was

  better than mine because and they

  believe it's still the case third-party

  keyboards are kind of you know like

  don't quite work right they take longer

  to switch to every now and then you'll

  switch to one and it doesn't work like

  there's all kinds of issues and things

  that whereas the built-in one works

  perfectly and so you know emoji plus

  plus isn't really a thing anymore

  I don't even think I still have it in

  the App Store because you know as new

  motors have been added you know I would

  nor defer to still be relevant I need to

  keep adding all these emojis but for the

  like one person who's downloading it a

  week it just doesn't make sense and so

  in that case like it just killed the app

  and in some ways I don't feel bad about

  that like I would obviously I wish the

  that line of business was still going

  and thriving it but I will say it one

  slightly upside of being you know

  Sherlock tore about being copied by

  Apple is that it is a you know

  nice kind of validation of your work to

  you know it's like to be copied by such

  a big you know a significant

  organization that in general I quite

  respect their products like it's kind of

  cool that maybe something I made was

  then copied and put into iOS but you

  know nevertheless like it just

  completely killed that product in that

  line of business and I think that is

  just the reality more more than more

  over than not that if you know if Apple

  is gonna come in and say you know this

  is something that we want to do they

  certainly have the resources they have

  the ability to do that and a copy and

  replace and then more often than not

  it's unlike you know is it will lead to

  a like an epic shift in terms of you

  know there was the period before and

  then there's the period after and now

  the after period is almost certainly

  going to be harder it's gonna be slower

  and it's gonna be you know it's a tough

  as an uphill battle because now all of a

  sudden your customers are an ardent or

  in general not going to be going to the

  App Store to look for an app to do this

  if somehow it just if immediately it

  does exactly what they need they'll just

  stick there because there is nothing few

  things more powerful in software than

  defaults I think in it's like the more

  you in which is useful like axiom for

  software development in general that

  like what however you we ship our apps

  to our customers whatever the default

  settings are or whatever the default

  mode is the vast majority of people will

  never shift from that and so we need to

  as developers I think be thoughtful of

  that and make sure our defaults are you

  know the will be the best thing for the

  most people but on the flip side

  whatever Apple shifts ships as default

  in their OS is gonna have a tremendously

  powering effect and the vast majority of

  people are just gonna stay there and

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  supporting this show so with all that

  doom and gloom

  in the back of my mind I recently have

  been thinking a lot about what is going

  to be happening to my Apple watch sleep

  tracker sleepless Plus which at this

  point exists in a market that without a

  Apple option which seems entirely

  unstable going forward because it is

  seems inevitable that Apple is going to

  get into these sleep tracking business

  on the Apple watch and if anything I'm

  kind of surprised that sleepless plus

  has been able to go as long as it has

  without a first party option and it's

  something that I've been wrestling with

  recently about how this app it will I

  think it's fair to say inevitably be

  Sherlock that it isn't one of these

  things where I will be surprised when

  one day a version of watch OS comes out

  it includes native sleep tracking like

  if if that day doesn't come like

  something has gone really wrong at Apple

  from development perspective because

  this is a clear obvious competitive

  disadvantage that they currently have

  compared to other fitness trackers you

  know things like Fitbit or jawbone which

  have sleep tracking built-in and while I

  love that I'm filling the gap right now

  you know with my app it seems kind of

  inevitable that they're going to that

  one day come in and do this and that's

  tricky because I want to keep making

  this app better I want to keep investing

  into it in terms of you know with time

  and energy but at the same time I don't

  want to go too far down the road if one

  day the entire purpose of the app is

  going to disappear and so recently when

  I've been kind of coming to grips with

  hasn't been working on updates for sleep

  plus plaus is this this thought of it's

  probably wise for developers to think

  through what sure locking of your app

  would look like what it would mean

  and then moreover are there any

  opportunities that being sure locked

  would present to you and sometimes that

  there won't be and sometimes it'll just

  be sadness and death but sometimes there

  might be an opportunity you know so like

  in the case of this of my apps the plus

  plus I'm thinking about it from a

  perspective of are there you know when

  Apple inevitably creates their sleep

  tracker almost certainly it's going to

  be better than mine and I like something

  has gone wrong again because what

  there's so many serve hacks and things I

  have to do on the watch to do what I do

  because you know continuously monitoring

  someone's activity level throughout that

  evening throughout the night you know is

  not something that the add the watch is

  really geared towards doing I mean has

  some good API is for it and you know I

  can make it work but I imagine Apple if

  they built it into at the OS level could

  do a much better job of categorizing

  user's activity this would be running

  all the time and could automatically cut

  and you go to sleep and when you wake up

  there's some really cool things that

  they can do there but I just can't do

  and so for me I'm starting to look

  forward to this as a one day this will


  I want to make advanced of the time I

  have now you know in terms of in a weird

  way it's like I want to gobble up all

  the possible revenue I can but

  Apple watch sleep tracking now because

  that'll inevitably kind of diminish

  dramatically and then - I'm looking

  forward to it in the sense of none

  essence I'm looking forward to it

  happening but I'm trying to develop with

  it in mind and so a lot of the features

  I'm working on now are if Apple creates

  a new a their own version that generates

  awesome data and puts that into

  healthkit what can I do with that like

  can I work on the maybe the

  interpretation and the analysis side of

  sleep tracking more than the data

  collection side and still have value to

  customers who may want to say wow my app

  my window my watch collects all this

  data but how can I interpret it and turn

  it more maybe into the way that I do

  with things like pedometer plus plus

  where it's like the phone collects this

  the step data but my app is all about

  interpreting it and making it meaningful

  and so I think this is an important

  thing for news to think of to think of

  where you know what what would being

  Sherlock two mean to me and just take an

  approach of if you view it as inevitable

  if you think that this will one day

  happen and at least keep it in back of

  your mind

  I think you can be ready for it and

  it'll still be bad it'll still probably

  not be a good thing for your business

  but at least it may not be utterly

  catastrophic yeah and you know I think

  one area that you can kind of be safer

  in is by trying to figure out what types

  of needs and needs you can solve

  features you can implement design

  choices you can make that Apple wouldn't

  do or that your platform vendor wouldn't

  do you know and and so I overcast all

  these like all these like nitpicky

  detail settings and all the advanced

  audio processing and all and just to

  hold a very uh napple like design of

  just like a different style I have a

  more human style all my microcopy is

  very human and Apple either can't or

  won't do any of those things because

  like it isn't their style or they would

  have to please too many people or they

  have to serve too many markets or

  whatever else so like the Apple version

  of your app will will we know how Apple

  does things we know they kind of do like

  the middle 80% of every problem and so

  if you can better serve the edges you

  can you can still have a business even

  with them

  locking and you know and so like what

  I've seen like you know overcast is is

  you know my current project obviously

  and overcast I I started writing it

  after the Apple podcast app on iOS

  existed so like I knew I was getting

  sure locked from day one of even

  beginning to work on the app and I still

  decided to do it and part of my strategy

  there were just like I will do some

  things that they won't and and some

  people will want those things and I knew

  going in that this was gonna be an

  uphill battle I knew that was going to

  be by far and away my biggest competitor

  and it was and is and probably will be

  for the foreseeable future because of

  what you said right before the break

  like it's already installed on

  everyone's phone it's already there like

  you have to well there's like a box now

  that prompts you but anyway it's

  basically already there if you search

  for podcast on the App Store a lot of

  times Apple will just show their giant

  podcast card or they'll show an ad for

  the road app yeah like I'm at a huge

  disadvantage there but I'm still able to

  business because I work on the edges I

  work where Apple won't or areas they

  don't serve very well also when Apple

  does something like that like with the

  put you know the podcasts app or their

  Notes app or their weather app whatever

  else like how many features has the

  weather app gotten since its release in

  2007 not not a lot like when when they

  when they release an app when they do

  their version of something it tends to

  be basically a one-shot deal like they

  show their hand and then that's about it

  for a long time possibly forever so once

  you do get sure locked or if you come

  pre Sherlock like I did with overcast

  yeah then you can kind of already know

  like you know the fear before you are

  sure locked it's like what's he gonna be

  is it gonna totally crush me and a lot

  of times their version of something

  isn't that great or isn't very deluxe or

  isn't you know isn't very good like I

  mentioned earlier reading lists reading

  list is really basic and it lacks some

  pretty big things like its text mode is

  terrible you don't have customizable

  like fonts too much degree you don't you

  it's there's not really even like a good

  dark mode like reading a bed is very

  bright like it's it just isn't very good

  it's it's not it is

  a great solution to this problem so like

  you know sitting it with podcasts Apple

  has been making a podcast app since the

  beginning of podcast apps and it's

  always been like ok but kind of

  confusing kind of burdened by the

  baggage of the iTunes Music Store and

  their podcast interface and like okay

  it's just like it was a known quantity I

  knew what I was going up against and

  that helped me formulate a plan for how

  I was gonna do that effectively like how

  will I do things that Apple won't do and

  that they've already shown that they

  either aren't capable or aren't willing

  to do yeah because I think that is the

  key point for us to be working it's like

  moving forward as developers is the if

  we develop our apps with this in mind

  and if we whether or not it will

  actually end up happening if we could

  assume that it's going to be inevitable

  but we see we try and predict either

  what they would do or we look at what

  they have done and see what is an

  opportunity besides that and that's just

  the reality like that is where we are

  going to be able to make the best runs

  at you know creating a business or

  making an interesting products to

  customers is you know we are undone it's

  unlikely that we are going to be able to

  uh napple over a search out Apple Apple

  like we don't have the resources or the

  skills or the brand recognition or being

  installed by default like that's just

  not going to happen but what we can do

  is look at it and say this is what

  they're going to do or this is what they

  have done in the case of like the

  podcasts app and you just say like well

  what can I do differently and just put

  our time and energy and effort into that

  being different part that is I think

  where we're going to have them the best

  traction and the highest probability of

  success and at a certain point you get

  less scared as a result as you know

  because the things that they're you know

  if Apple comes in and does something

  like you say they're going to do it in a

  very particular way and it's important

  just as I think in general it's an

  important thing for us to be sort of

  students and people who kind of

  understand and look at the app store in

  the way it works and make sure we

  understand you know how the top charts

  work how keyword searching works like

  wouldn't be a student of that it's also

  important to be a student of how Apple

  makes their software so that we can make

  sure we're building ours such that there

  the overlap if it exists will won't be

  and the degree to which we can exploit

  ever we make only slightly overlap we're

  almost certainly like we're increasing

  the upward force and decreasing the

  downward force in our app and you know

  fair enough maybe there will always be a

  stronger downward force and there will

  be an upward force created by Sherlock

  Inge but at the very least we can shift

  the balance between those two ever so

  slightly in our favor just by being a

  bit more thoughtful and honestly I know

  a lot people don't to hear this it is

  really really useful when someone

  searching the App Store for something

  that they get on their phone for free if

  your app is free upfront whether you

  have an in-app purchase or however you

  make money afterwards being free upfront

  is will do you a lot of favors if you

  have been sure locked sure yeah because

  then you're free against free and it

  isn't free against page so exactly like

  that was a huge problem I have with

  Instapaper that for my entire ownership

  of it it was paid up front and on day

  one that was fine but you know three or

  four years in that became very much not

  fine and yeah anything you can do to

  reduce the friction if you can

  especially you know if you're doing

  system stuff if you can import data from

  the system in any way and then export it

  back outs to anything that makes it

  easier for people to try your app this

  is good business anyway that for any app

  but it's particularly effective and

  necessary if you have been Sherlock buy

  stuff built into the OS it is incredibly

  beneficial to you to make it very easy

  and free for people to try your app so

  they can see the difference that helps a

  lot all right and with that we are out

  of time this week so thank you very much

  for listening everybody and we'll talk

  to you next week bye