Under the Radar

65: Getting Sherlocked


00:00:00   Welcome to Under the Radar, a show about independent iOS app development.

00:00:04   I'm Mark Orment.

00:00:05   And I'm David Smith. Under the Radar is never longer than 30 minutes, so let's get started.

00:00:10   So today we wanted to talk about "sherlocking," which is a term that often strikes fear into the hearts of independent developers.

00:00:21   But first, before I get into the actual, like, our personal experiences with it,

00:00:25   I did want to take a moment to explain what it is and where the term comes from, because it is an entirely non-obvious term.

00:00:31   So it goes back to a utility that was written back many, many, many years ago that came--

00:00:39   Honestly, it was before my time on the Mac.

00:00:41   But there was a utility called Watson that did something, and then Apple came along and created--

00:00:46   shipped with the OS an application called Sherlock, which did everything that Watson did

00:00:51   and effectively put Watson out of business.

00:00:55   So "sherlocking" has taken on the connotation of any time Apple--

00:01:00   or I guess you could probably generalize this to the platform vendor--

00:01:04   takes a feature or functionality or whole stock in application and copies it and ships it, sort of, by default into the operating system,

00:01:15   which, as you would expect, is often something that is a little bit scary for that developer who just got copied.

00:01:22   Because now, the thing that you've been working so hard on building, the thing that hopefully had some kind of unique business around it

00:01:29   and was useful to customers, suddenly everyone gets for free.

00:01:34   In some ways, it's like the inevitable first thought is, "Well, I'm out of business now,"

00:01:40   which isn't always the case, but is something, I think, that we thought we wanted to unpack.

00:01:44   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

00:01:51   that will inevitably be Sherlocked, which we'll talk about a little bit later.

00:01:56   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,

00:02:03   when Apple creates capabilities and opportunities on their platform, you know, they add a new API,

00:02:08   you know, when they added the motion co-processor to the iPhone, like, that was awesome for me.

00:02:12   I made an app called Step Counter and built this whole sort of line of business for myself because of that.

00:02:18   Like, they created that opportunity.

00:02:20   Now, if Apple went the next step and created their own step tracker, then suddenly it becomes, you know,

00:02:26   problematic and something that I wouldn't be as excited about.

00:02:30   And that tension between these two things of, you know, what Apple chooses to support in terms of, like, creating an API

00:02:37   to encourage the development in an area and the areas where Apple says, "You know what? This is so fundamental to the application,

00:02:43   you know, to the use of this device or the use of this operating system that we're going to build this in."

00:02:49   You know, it's like if Apple didn't have a camera app on the iPhone, that would feel really weird,

00:02:55   even if third parties could make awesome camera apps. Like, it's such a fundamental part of it.

00:02:59   And so, you know, Apple is in this process of gradually expanding out what is considered sort of default or what comes with it.

00:03:07   And I think we both, you and I, Marco, have some experience with this.

00:03:11   And I think we will start off for this episode is talk a little bit about some of our past examples.

00:03:17   So I was wondering if you could start us off by telling the story of Instapaper and Reading List.

00:03:22   Sure, yeah. So this was my first Sherlocking as a developer.

00:03:26   Basically, I made Instapaper, which was a save web pages for reading later service, back in something like 2008.

00:03:36   It was really a long time ago. Oh, I think it might have been the fall of '07.

00:03:40   It was a very long time ago. I don't even remember right now, but around that ballpark.

00:03:44   And yeah, Instapaper was, you know, this fairly successful app that is actually still around.

00:03:51   I don't use it anymore, but it's still around. And basically, the idea of it is, you know, you save web pages to read later.

00:03:59   And you then go into, you know, you're on a page, you save it, you go into the Instapaper app, and you can get a list of everything you save.

00:04:07   And that list syncs between different devices on the website.

00:04:10   You can save things from your Mac to read on your phone or iPad.

00:04:13   So there's like cross device saving and syncing and everything saved for offline use.

00:04:18   And everything saved in this nice, like text only customizable, nice reading view.

00:04:23   And different parts of that had been done before, but the combination of those things was never done before.

00:04:28   And so I kind of felt like I owned that concept, which is kind of a naive place to be, honestly.

00:04:33   But that's what I felt at the time.

00:04:35   And then over the next couple years, a couple of competitors did the same thing.

00:04:39   And then eventually, Apple in 2011, Apple announced that Mac OS Lion would include this feature in Safari called Reading List.

00:04:53   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.

00:05:00   And it was basically like a faster version of bookmarks.

00:05:03   There were none of the other features. There was no cross device sync.

00:05:06   There was no text view. There was no mobile version. There was nothing in iOS about it.

00:05:11   So at first, I was like, "Oh, well, this isn't this." I even wrote these blog posts.

00:05:14   Like, "This isn't a competitor to Instapaper because it doesn't have all these things. I'm not Sherlock yet. Ha ha."

00:05:19   And then over the next couple of years, like 2012, they slowly added pretty much all of the other features.

00:05:25   They added it to iOS. They added sync. They added offline downloading of the pages that you save.

00:05:30   They added their text view, which is kind of a separate thing.

00:05:33   And so, like, anyway, they basically slowly added all of Instapaper's core features.

00:05:37   And they've kind of left it alone for the last couple years because I think it's basically a complete feature at this point.

00:05:44   What Instapaper was, it is the essence of that service, and it's missing tons and tons of features that Instapaper has.

00:05:50   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.

00:05:58   And I kept talking, like, over the years as Reading List came out and then slowly got better and slowly moved more into a direct competitor of Instapaper,

00:06:09   I kept telling myself, like, "Yeah, this is fine. It's not really going to compete with me. It's not going to affect my sales. It might even help my sales.

00:06:16   People are going to find it and then realize they want something better and come find mine."

00:06:20   And as far as I can tell, I don't know if any of those things were true in retrospect.

00:06:28   I mean, I wasn't as good of a business person back then. Not that I'm great now, but I'm less bad now.

00:06:34   And so it's hard to tell whether various business failures or slow growth were because of other things like my pricing decisions at the time,

00:06:44   or marketing decisions, or whatever else, or whether it was because of Reading List and any other competition that was out there.

00:06:52   But the main moment, I think, was Reading List because it was built in.

00:06:54   And for a while, like, before extensions, Reading List had way more of a privileged position than I did,

00:07:01   because there were buttons all over the OS for adding links to Reading List, and you couldn't do that before extensions.

00:07:07   You couldn't have your app appear in those kind of buttons.

00:07:09   And there's actually still a couple places, I think like in Mail, where there's still no system share sheet,

00:07:14   but there's a couple of menus that have, like, "Open, Copy, and Add to Reading List."

00:07:18   So there's still a few places like that.

00:07:20   But anyway, so all that time, I kept thinking, like, "Oh, I'll be fine. I'll still be the deluxe option."

00:07:28   And then, "Oh, well, they're not going to copy all my features."

00:07:31   And basically, they're really good at copying the features that matter.

00:07:35   And even if they don't copy them all, they copy a lot that matter.

00:07:38   And they often are good enough.

00:07:41   I do think there is a danger in share locking that we often want to minimize in our heads or deny,

00:07:48   or try to turn around into a positive thing.

00:07:50   But the reality is, when the platform vendor that you're on neutralizes the main features that you have

00:07:58   as an advantage by adding them themselves, it's a pretty big deal.

00:08:01   It probably does really affect your business.

00:08:05   There might be cases where that's not true, but it's certainly not going to be a great thing.

00:08:10   Now, how much of a bad thing it'll be is probably very dependent on the situation

00:08:16   and on you and your products and your customer base.

00:08:18   And in most cases, I don't think it's going to be incredibly fatal.

00:08:22   I think it's very rare where it's really fatal.

00:08:24   But you can look at the other side of this, is you can look at the apps that come by default on Macs and iOS devices.

00:08:32   How many note-taking apps are there?

00:08:34   There's been a notes app on the iPhone since day one of the iPhone.

00:08:37   Before there were apps, there was notes and there was weather and there were stocks and all these things.

00:08:42   And now, there are third-party replacements for all those categories.

00:08:46   There's tons of them, and some of them do really well.

00:08:49   So I don't think share locking or having the platform vendor implement the same feature that you do

00:08:55   either before or after you get there, I don't think it's fatal to your business,

00:08:59   but it is a large effect on your business.

00:09:01   There's no denying that when Apple made their notes app better a couple years ago,

00:09:05   and they moved it to CloudKit and they made it sync and added all the rich text stuff to it,

00:09:09   there's no denying that hurt a lot of other notes apps pretty badly.

00:09:14   They can still exist, but it's harder for them to exist.

00:09:19   So this is a force that moves throughout markets that you need to be aware of.

00:09:25   And it's almost certainly never good for you.

00:09:30   My whole idea is that people will find this and want to upgrade to a better one.

00:09:33   Pretty sure that's bogus in retrospect.

00:09:35   It's never good for you. The only question is how bad is it for you?

00:09:39   And it might not be too horrible, but that also might change in the future.

00:09:43   So it's definitely something to keep a very close eye on.

00:09:46   Yeah, and I think what you're saying there is the key reality that I've come to grips with

00:09:53   is that something like being Sherlock'd puts a tremendous weight on the customer demand for your product.

00:10:04   It pushes it down substantially.

00:10:07   It also in some way probably creates customer interest in your product or in your product category.

00:10:13   But the relative sizes of those two forces are very disproportionate.

00:10:19   There's a much stronger push down than there is a push up.

00:10:23   And so you'll get a few people who are like, like you were saying, the hopeful kind of like,

00:10:27   "Yeah, it's just like the built-in one, but better. I'm looking for the better thing."

00:10:32   That's a great story we tell ourselves.

00:10:34   Well, but I think it's not just a story, because I think it is true, and that does happen.

00:10:40   But it's like for every one of those people, there's ten people who now will never even consider looking for something else.

00:10:48   And so it's a tremendous offset down.

00:10:52   And my example is perhaps slightly less dramatic, but the most significant Sherlocking I've ever had

00:11:01   was for an app that I wrote called Emoji++, which back when custom keyboards were first introduced,

00:11:07   the emoji picker at the time was this kind of awful keyboard thing, which was just one big massive list of all the emojis.

00:11:16   You could never find anything organized in this very haphazard way.

00:11:20   And so I decided, you know what, I think I have a better way of organizing emoji.

00:11:24   I'm going to make it so that you can, they're going to be organized by category,

00:11:28   and you can quickly jump from category to category by moving a slider on the edge,

00:11:33   you know, dragging your finger up and down that.

00:11:37   And it had a few other kind of bonus features, like you could add favorites and that type of features.

00:11:42   But for the most part, it was just this very quick, easy to understand, organized version of the emoji keyboard.

00:11:48   I released it, it went well, had a nice big launch, it did fairly well.

00:11:52   In the next version of iOS, there was, I think it was not even the next major version, I think it was in a point release.

00:11:58   It was quick.

00:11:59   Yeah, like there was very quickly a new emoji keyboard in iOS that was roughly the same as Emoji++, but turned 90 degrees.

00:12:08   And I have no way of saying.

00:12:11   I have no way of knowing if that was based on Emoji++, if that was something that had been in works for months.

00:12:17   I'd have no visibility into that.

00:12:19   But the reality was, now, the thing that made my app unique and special and interesting was completely gone.

00:12:26   Because that app was better than mine, because, and I believe it's still the case, third-party keyboards are kind of, you know,

00:12:34   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.

00:12:40   There's all kinds of issues and things with it, whereas the built-in one works perfectly.

00:12:45   And so, you know, Emoji++ isn't really a thing anymore.

00:12:49   I don't even think I still have it in the App Store, because as new emojis have been added,

00:12:54   I would, in order for it to still be relevant, I need to keep adding all these emojis, but for the one person who's downloading it a week,

00:13:01   it just doesn't make sense.

00:13:02   And so in that case, it just killed the app.

00:13:06   And in some ways, I don't feel bad about that.

00:13:09   Like, obviously I wish that line of business was still going and thriving, but I will say one slightly upside of being, you know,

00:13:18   Sherlock'd or about being copied by Apple is that it is a nice kind of validation of your work,

00:13:25   you know, it's like to be copied by such a big, you know, significant organization that in general, I quite respect their products.

00:13:33   Like, it's kind of cool that maybe something I made was then copied and put into iOS.

00:13:38   But you know, nevertheless, like it just completely killed that product and that line of business.

00:13:42   And I think that is just the reality, more than moreover than not, that if, you know, if Apple is going to come in and say,

00:13:49   you know, this is something that we want to do, they certainly have the resources, they have the ability to do that and to copy and replace.

00:13:56   And then more often than not, it's unlike, you know, it'll lead to a, like an epic shift in terms of, you know,

00:14:04   there was the period before and then there's the period after. And now the after period is almost certainly going to be harder,

00:14:11   it's going to be slower and it's going to be, you know, it's an uphill battle because now all of a sudden your customers are in general

00:14:20   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,

00:14:25   they'll just stick there because there is few things more powerful in software than defaults.

00:14:32   I think in, it's like the more you, which is a useful like axiom for software development in general, that like,

00:14:38   however we ship our apps to our customers, whatever the default settings are, whatever the default mode is,

00:14:44   the vast majority of people will never shift from that. And so we need to, as developers, I think, be thoughtful of that

00:14:50   and make sure our defaults are, you know, will be the best thing for the most people.

00:14:54   But on the flip side, whatever Apple ships as default in their OS is going to have a tremendously powering effect

00:15:01   and the vast majority of people are just going to stay there and never switch.

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00:16:56   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.

00:17:10   Which at this point exists in a market that without an Apple option, which seems entirely unstable going forward.

00:17:21   Because it seems inevitable that Apple is going to get into the sleep tracking business on the Apple Watch.

00:17:26   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.

00:17:35   And it's something that I've been wrestling with recently about how this app will, I think it's fair to say, inevitably be Sherlock.

00:17:43   That it isn't one of these things where I will be surprised when one day a version of watchOS comes out and includes native sleep tracking.

00:17:51   Like if that day doesn't come, something has gone really wrong at Apple from a development perspective.

00:17:57   Because this is a clear, obvious, competitive disadvantage that they currently have compared to other fitness trackers.

00:18:02   Things like Fitbit or Jawbone, which have sleep tracking built in.

00:18:06   And while I love that I'm filling the gap right now with my app, it seems kind of inevitable that they're going to one day come in and do this.

00:18:15   And that's tricky because I want to keep making this app better, I want to keep investing into it in terms of time and energy.

00:18:22   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.

00:18:29   And so recently what I've been kind of coming to grips with as I've been working on updates for Sleepless Plus is this thought of,

00:18:36   it's probably wise for developers to think through what Sherlocking of your app would look like.

00:18:43   What it would mean, and then moreover, are there any opportunities that being Sherlocked would present to you?

00:18:51   And sometimes there won't be, and sometimes it'll just be sadness and death.

00:18:55   But sometimes there might be an opportunity.

00:18:59   So in the case of my app Sleepless Plus, I'm thinking about it from a perspective of, are there, you know,

00:19:05   Monapple inevitably creates their sleep tracker. Almost certainly it's going to be better than mine.

00:19:09   And if it isn't, something has gone wrong again.

00:19:12   Because there's so many sort of hacks and things I have to do on the watch to do what I do.

00:19:18   Because continuously monitoring someone's activity level throughout the night is not something that the watch is really geared towards doing.

00:19:28   It has some good APIs for it, and I can make it work, but I imagine Apple, if they built it at the OS level,

00:19:35   could do a much better job of categorizing users' activity. This would be running all the time,

00:19:39   and could automatically detect when you go to sleep and when you wake up.

00:19:43   There's some really cool things that they can do there that I just can't do.

00:19:46   And so for me, I'm starting to look forward to this as a, "One day this will come.

00:19:51   I want to make the most of the time I have now."

00:19:54   You know, in a weird way, it's like I want to gobble up all the possible revenue I can with Apple Watch sleep tracking now,

00:20:00   because that will inevitably kind of diminish dramatically.

00:20:04   And then two, I'm looking forward to it in the sense of, not in the sense of I'm looking forward to it happening,

00:20:09   but I'm trying to develop with it in mind.

00:20:12   And so a lot of the features I'm working on now are, if Apple creates a new, their own version that generates awesome data

00:20:19   and puts that into HealthKit, what can I do with that?

00:20:22   Like, can I work on maybe the interpretation and the analysis side of sleep tracking more than the data collection side,

00:20:29   and still have value to customers who may want to say, "Wow, my app, my watch collects all this data,

00:20:37   but how can I interpret it and turn it more maybe into the way that I do with things like Pedometer++,

00:20:42   where it's like the phone collects the step data, but my app is all about interpreting it and making it meaningful."

00:20:49   And so I think this is an important thing for indies to think of, where, you know,

00:20:55   what would being Sherlocked mean to me? And just take an approach of, if you view it as inevitable,

00:21:01   if you think that this will one day happen, and at least keep it in the back of your mind,

00:21:05   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,

00:21:11   but at least it may not be utterly catastrophic.

00:21:15   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

00:21:25   and needs you can solve, features you can implement, design choices you can make, that Apple wouldn't do,

00:21:32   or that your platform vendor wouldn't do. And so Overcast has all these nitpicky detail settings

00:21:38   and all the advanced audio processing, and just to hold a very un-Apple-like design of just a different style,

00:21:45   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,

00:21:52   because it isn't their style, or they would have to please too many people, or they would have to serve too many markets,

00:21:57   or whatever else. So the Apple version of your app will, we know how Apple does things, we know they kind of do

00:22:04   the middle 80% of every problem, and so if you can better serve the edges, you can still have a business,

00:22:11   even with them Sherlocking. And so what I've seen, Overcast is my current project, obviously,

00:22:19   and Overcast, I started writing it after the Apple podcast app on iOS existed, so I knew I was getting Sherlocked

00:22:28   from day one of even beginning to work on the app, and I still decided to do it, and part of my strategy there

00:22:35   was just like, I will do some things that they won't, and some people will want those things,

00:22:41   and I knew going in that this was going to be an uphill battle, I knew that was going to be by far and away

00:22:46   my biggest competitor, and it was and is, and probably will be for the foreseeable future, because of what you said

00:22:52   right before the break, it's already installed on everyone's phone, it's already there, you have to, well there's like a box now

00:22:58   that prompts you, but anyway, it's basically already there. If you search for podcast on the app store, a lot of times

00:23:03   Apple will just show their giant podcast card now, or they'll show an ad for their own app.

00:23:09   I'm at a huge disadvantage there, but I'm still able to go to business because I work on the edges, I work where Apple won't,

00:23:17   or areas they don't serve very well. Also, when Apple does something like that, like with the podcast app,

00:23:25   or their Notes app, or their weather app, whatever else, how many features has the weather app gotten since its release in 2007?

00:23:32   Not a lot. Like, when they release an app, when they do their version of something, it tends to be basically a one shot deal.

00:23:41   Like, they show their hand, and then that's about it for a long time, possibly forever. So, once you do get Sherlock'd,

00:23:50   or if you come pre-Sherlock'd, like I did with Overcast, then you can kind of already know, like the fear before you are Sherlock'd is like

00:23:58   "Oh, what's it gonna be? Is it gonna totally crush me?" And a lot of times, their version of something isn't that great,

00:24:04   or isn't very deluxe, or isn't very good. Like, I mentioned earlier, Reading List, Reading List is really basic,

00:24:11   and it lacks some pretty big things. Like, its text mode is terrible. You don't have customizable fonts, too much degree,

00:24:18   there's not really even a good dark mode, like reading embed is very bright. It just isn't very good.

00:24:25   It isn't a great solution to this problem. So, like, you know, with podcasts, Apple has been making a podcast app since the beginning of podcast apps,

00:24:33   and it's always been like, okay, but kind of confusing, kind of burdened by the baggage of the iTunes Music Store and their podcast interface,

00:24:42   and like, 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.

00:24:51   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?

00:24:58   Yeah, 'cause I think that is the key point for us to be working, as like, moving forward as developers, is the, if we develop our apps with this in mind,

00:25:07   and if we, whether or not it'll 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,

00:25:16   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,

00:25:27   or making an interesting product to customers, is, you know, we are, it's unlikely that we are going to be able to un-Apple, over, out-Apple Apple, like,

00:25:37   we don't have the resources or the skills or the hand recognition or being installed by default, like, that's just not gonna happen.

00:25:43   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 podcast app, and you just say, like, well, what can I do differently?

00:25:54   And just put our time and energy and effort into that being different part, that is, I think, where we're going to have the best traction and the highest probability of success.

00:26:03   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,

00:26:15   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 and the way it works,

00:26:24   and make sure we understand, you know, how the top charts work, how keyword searching works, like, we're going to be a student of that.

00:26:30   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 the overlap, if it exists, will not be 100%.

00:26:40   And the degree to which we can, you know, split that out and be whatever Apple makes, whatever we make, only slightly overlap, we're almost certainly like we're increasing the upward force and decreasing the downward force in our app.

00:26:52   And, you know, fair enough, maybe there will always be a stronger downward force, and there will be an upward force created by Sherlocking.

00:26:58   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.

00:27:06   And honestly, I know a lot of people don't want to hear this, it is really, really useful when someone's searching the App Store for something that they get on their phone for free, if your app is free up front.

00:27:15   Whether you have an in-app purchase or however you make money afterwards, being free up front will do you a lot of favors if you have been Sherlocked.

00:27:23   Sure, yeah, because then you're free against free and it isn't free against paid, so.

00:27:28   Exactly. Like that was a huge problem I had with Instapaper, that for my entire ownership of it, it was paid up front.

00:27:33   And on day one, that was fine, but, you know, three or four years in, that became very much not fine.

00:27:40   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 out,

00:27:51   anything that makes it easier for people to try your app, this is good business anyway for any app, but it's particularly effective and necessary if you have been Sherlocked by stuff built into the OS.

00:28:02   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.

00:28:11   Alright, 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.

00:28:17   Bye.