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Nat Torkington

Nat Torkington

Where Does The Apple Stop And The Worm Begin?

Chris and Phil both take a dump on Apple. Why? Because the new version of OS X will ship with features that make several independent third-party products redundant.

This isn't a new complaint, of course. It's arisen with the last few OS X releases, and before that Microsoft was the bad guy for feeding on its developers. I think that Chris and Phil have the wrong end of this one, though. They paint a picture of an unimaginative Apple, gleefully turning to VersionTracker to figure out which new features to add to OS X this year. What rubbish! Anyone who's been in software for more than a month can see two blindingly obvious facts: (1) all ideas are derivative, so consequently (2) the half-life of a feature's value is as long as it takes a competitor to reimplement it. Let's take them one at a time.

All Ideas Are Derivative

This is the point of Creative Commons: that culture is accumulated, it doesn't emerge ex nihilo. Science is full of statements like Newton's "if I have seen further than others, then it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants." Technologists very rarely create something new. C was inspired by BCPL, Unix was inspired by MULTICS, Linux by MINIX, XML by SGML, web services by traditional binary APIs, .... This is the problem with patents: the magic that gets patented often ends up being something as questionably worthy as "the right ingredients that we already had" or "this old solution applied to this new problem".

You can tell there's no such thing as an original idea in the desktop software market just by looking at the lists of applications that Phil and Chris rattle off: there are multiple virtual desktop managers, multiple chat clients with tabs, multiple application launchers. The desktop managers use hooks that Apple themselves built into the operating system, greatly undermining any claim to primacy they had even if somehow they managed to survive the very long line of virtual desktop managers from the X Windows world. And tabs aren't a brilliant innovation plucked from the mind of the Chax developer, as he'll be the first to tell you. Nobody can expect a lifelong boarding pass for the gravy train because they added tabs to anything.

R&D success is not mainstream success, and the two rarely happen in the same company for the same concept. There were hard disk MP3 players before the iPod. TiVo still struggles for a market. Google's a rarity: the grad students who developed the complex algorithms built the company and run it to this day--generally the young people who develop cool new things do so as employees of someone else. The companies you see at the Emerging Technology Conference all want to be like the Google founders and see the mainstream success of the new product they've built, but the odds are against it. They're the ones inventing the future, but invention and distribution are very different skills. This is a challenge for every company, and is why R&D groups struggle. I think this is a consequence of the smallness of most "inventions".

A parallel point here is that product developers have roadmaps and wishlists for features. It's highly likely that many of these features were planned long before third-party developers showed there was a market for them. Not every feature is ripped from VersionTracker: Apple's adding a time travelling file system ("show me this file as it was at 3pm yesterday") which third party developers hadn't been working on. Of course, Apple's not the first to have this: I was reading papers in the early 1990s from ATT on their "3d file system" that was exactly this, and NetApp's servers have been providing this functionality to the data center for more than a decade. And it's likely that many of those new features that do come from VersionTracker were already on a roadmap in some locked Cupertino office.

Features are Short-Lived

It should be obvious that features don't ensure survival for very long. Business isn't a single hand of poker, it's an endless deck. If you make something clever, I can copy it. If I can copy it, what's your advantage? It's in being first in to build name, it's in customer service, it's in marketing, it's in customer allegiance or lock-in, it's in the overall strength of your product. And, most critically, it's in the lead that you have built. While I'm copying your feature, you should be building the next one. A brilliant Perl friend of mine, Jarkko Hietaniemi, has as his .sig a quote from Jack Cohen: "There is this special biologist word we use for 'stable'. It is 'dead'." This could just as equally apply to the software business.

The only exception to this rule of feature half-life is when your engineering or operations make your feature uncopyable. Do you store more data than anyone else? Do you have so many servers that uptime and scale isn't a problem? Do you have the storage and CPU to do machine learning so that the system grows better with every user that joins and so users won't want to leave? Can you solve the complex equations faster than anyone else because you've got some very clever hard-core PhDs that would be a very difficult team for anyone else to duplicate? Yes, these are the competitive advantages of Google and Yahoo!. But it's rare to see them doing anything that exploits these advantages. Side note: I feel that Google's presence in a market doesn't spell the end of that market unless they're taking advantage of their strengths. If they play by the competition's rules, it's like watching Andre the Giant audition for the ballet.

So What Can I Be Pissed About?!

The real question here is whether a platform developer has obligations to its developer community. Platforms grow: to do otherwise is to die. At what point should Apple have stopped adding features to its operating system? 10.4? 10.1? System 7? I know people only want Apple to add Big Features that third-party developers aren't working on, which it does, but to ignore the Small Stuff is to leave your product full of holes and very shoddy indeed. Who in their right mind would want that operating system? (Note to commentators: save the jokes against Windows and Linux for someone who couldn't see them coming)

These situations will always arise in every platform. Google Maps is bound to add a "save my locations" feature--should it buy Platial? Should it pay off Platial? Does it, in fact, owe Platial anything? People build add-on utilities for Google Calendar and Google Maps all the time (sync to iCal, bulk import, etc.). Should Google buy them when those perfectly reasonble features are added to the Google platform? If Flock's successful, people will build Flock-specific extensions. Does Flock then owe it to these developers to buy them or otherwise appropriately compensate should Flock add that functionality into the core product? And who decides what's an appropriate level of compensation?

More specifically, should Apple have bought Watson? Should Apple have hired the developer of Watson? What about the developer(s) of Desktop Manager? What about the developer of the app that added tabs to iChat? If Apple doesn't owe employment to the developers (Apple should monotonically increase in size with every OS X release?), does it owe them the "purchase" of the product? How do you negotiate that when, ultimately, Apple's just being nice and could implement the feature for less money than will be consumed by lawyers fees let alone the purchase price? I don't see a right answer here.

My take on it is that everyone has to assume that their features are up for grab. Whether you've written a great virtual desktop manager like Desktop Manager, a great metasearch application like Watson, or a great launchbar like Quicksilver, you've got to acknowledge that your reward for becoming an indispensable part of users' lives is to have your product's features integrated into the platform. If you're small fry, you have to play to your strengths: speed of development, agility, and the fact that you're not tied to 12-24 month release cycles. It's not comforting to realize that you're alone in the big wide world and nobody owes you a living, but I think it's time to accept that fact and move on.

That's not to let Apple, Microsoft, Google, Yahoo!, Amazon, and other platform vendors off the hook. Third party developers are your flock: they're fleece and flesh. You want to shear far more often than you slaughter. That's enlightened self-interest, not ethics though. Ethical behaviour would be to establish a policy that rewards developers who create features you hadn't thought of, and then stick to it even when you don't want to.

Open Source

It's interesting to compare the commercial software space with that of open source. Distros add packages all the time, and it's seen as a positive thing. The current trend is for companies to give their closed source products to the open source world to be bundled with distros, the complete opposite of the Apple situation, so obviously there's a different dynamic in open source.

Part of the difference is probably that open source coders can maintain "control" of their work even after it's added to a distro. The rest of the difference is probably that because of the nature of open source, few people are making money from the software itself. That doesn't mean that the same type of disputes don't arise, however: Linus discarded BitKeeper and wrote git amidst "I thought we were partners" kerfuffle, and don't forget the "GNU/Linux" (Linux distributions are built on FSF software so should have "GNU" in their name). But these are direct analogues; there doesn't seem to be the same kind of "hey, I was making money from that!" objections to new Linux distro features.

Open source does eat away at profits from commercial software, forcing innovation to occur elsewhere. That was a thesis of Tim's Open Source Paradigm Shift essay: profits remain to be made, just elsewhere on the stack. This is just a specific case of the effect of competition: any competition will force you to add new features and differentiate. Whether it's competition from open source, competition from peers, or competition from the platform provider, you've got to keep working to earn your money.

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Comments: 25

Scott Berkun   [08.10.06 04:53 AM]

This is a solid post - the rub is that people who just slaved all month making something aren't prone to considering the derivativeness of their ideas, especially if they're witnessing someone deriving from theirs.

It's a natural competitive success trend: if you prove something can be done, don't expect everyone to watch and applaud: they'll start doing it to as you've paved the way. And they'll do it faster than you did, since they have a model to follow. Innovation sure looks nice but it's a sucky, risky business if that's all you're doing.

My only jab at your feature life-span comments are about quality and user experience. Checking off the existence of a feature in a marketing checklist is one thing: crafting that feature such that people can use it to make their lives better is another. There's a zillion ftp programs with the same feature set: but only a handful of them don't suck. Part of the i-pod magic is experience and feature quality: not the freshest feature set. Most knock-offs have way more features than the i-pod does, but are so unpleasant to use they make you want to rip your own head off. So I don't buy the feature war tactic completely, as that's exactly what leads to all the bloat and clunkyness the web 2.0 crowd laughs at the boxed software world for. Wait till you hit v10: feature war focus has unexpected casualities.

I think the challenge was and always will be to make good software. Don't focus on features, or inventiveness or even innovation: just make it good. Solve real problems for people. Be reliable. Be simple to install and use: to do those 4 things is unbelievably hard. If to achieve it you need to invent something, great - but as you point out having the latest greatest coolest idea as your only strength doesn't give you much competitive advantage: however creating a great and complete solution to someone's problem does.

All platforms do harvest from apps - but
I think the platform obligation is to do their best to warn developers which way the reaper is going - give 'em lead time, an upsell angle or point to ripe frontier directions where new seeds might grow. That's what I'd do if I wanted independents to keep healthy roots in my platform.

Steve Mallett   [08.10.06 05:35 AM]

I was musing while watching the WWDC keynote how Apple sits in the middle of two wildly divergent market forces (Microsoft as Monopolist / Linux as wild opposite) and is able to make sound decisions about its OS and its business.

Apple includes 'features' as is warrented to make the OS better, and it open sources pieces of the OS where it makes sense. Some actions may not make everyone happpy, but they are sound for their product and the company. Something we don't see enough of.

The rub: does Apple owe the 'feature' developers anything? I fail to see how they "owe" them. It would be nice to honor their work somehow. OSX is usable because of some of those new features previously known as applications.

Jason Krause   [08.10.06 05:38 AM]

Great article and I agree with it top to bottom. One thing to add to it that I haven't seen anyone bring up (not saying no one has, just haven't seen it) is that tabs were already in iChat. They just weren't activated for "user" yet. If you dig down in iChat you'll find the resource/image files for tabs. So basically the Chax developer took advantage of this feature and added the ability to "activate" it.

Nothing wrong with that, and many are thankful he did (I know I am), but you can't say Apple ripped the idea off. I will say that it does look like Apple has decided to take a different route with tabs from the previews I've seen of it.

When Apple adds stuff to the system that seems kind of obvious for them to do so, then you are not doing a good enough job of innovating. So just enjoy the fact you are doing well in the time being and either make your product better or move on to something else that fills a "hole" in the system and hope it takes Apple longer to fill it.

Ian   [08.10.06 08:11 AM]

On the other hand, Newton could have just been being an ass by reminding Hooke that he was short in stature and genius when compared to Newton.

As to Apple - I'd rather they include things like spotlight and launchd as the foundation of a new release, rather than incorporate the functionality of third party apps. Sure you can add in virtual desktops (somthing that should have been there from the beginning) but it isn't "new release hype-worthy" in my opinion, and consequently, the announcement shouldn't downplay the OS improvements and up-play the GUI widgets that someone else came up with and they co-opted.

Leopard hasn't yet shown that it has the differentiation from Tiger that Tiger had from Panther, so in those terms I'm reserving judgement but expecting to be disappointed.

Ubuntu looks better every day.

jb   [08.10.06 09:13 AM]

I would add one point, and this is mostly regarding Time Machine (backups)...

Backups have been around as long as computers, but that doesn't make them easy to find or to use. The large assortment and massive feature differences between the solutions on the market makes choosing and implementing good easy reliable backups something that is out of reach for most users. If apple is able to build a solution that is easy to use for the average user and the percentage of people doing backups increases as a result, well this should be seen as a good thing. If anything, other backup solution providers should see this as a failing on their part.

The reason Apple picked up the ball here is that their research showed that very few of their users were doing backups regularly.


jb   [08.10.06 09:13 AM]

I would add one point, and this is mostly regarding Time Machine (backups)...

Backups have been around as long as computers, but that doesn't make them easy to find or to use. The large assortment and massive feature differences between the solutions on the market makes choosing and implementing good easy reliable backups something that is out of reach for most users. If apple is able to build a solution that is easy to use for the average user and the percentage of people doing backups increases as a result, well this should be seen as a good thing. If anything, other backup solution providers should see this as a failing on their part.

The reason Apple picked up the ball here is that their research showed that very few of their users were doing backups regularly.


dm   [08.10.06 10:57 AM]

The other thing to remember is that not every Mac user looks at Versiontracker or installs anything other than what is in OS X.

Enthusiasts will check what fun/useful apps are out there and experiment with what works for them. But the average consumer? The only time they're likely to install 3rd party software is if they have a particular task to do. Put features in front of them in the OS and they might try them out.

Alex   [08.10.06 11:07 AM]

Agree with the post and it reminds me of a letter I read back in MacFormat (I think) magazine years and years ago written by a guy who was pleased that Apple had ripped off his idea to incorporate a clock next to the Apple Logo in the menubar.

Up until that time (ho ho) you had to run a separate application to find out what the time was. The author had come up with the idea and built it with the intention of Apple ripping him off as it was a feature he'd wanted to see in their operating system.

pwb   [08.10.06 11:15 AM]

Excellent post. I'm so sick of all the whining.

gnat   [08.10.06 06:21 PM]

Scott: you're absolutely right that usability is important. I think of it as a feature: failing to suck is a great differentiator!

gnat   [08.10.06 06:28 PM]

Jason: yes, it's the same with the virtual desktops. Apple had the hooks in the operating system but hadn't built the user interface into it yet.

gnat   [08.10.06 06:35 PM]

Ian: I think it's a little early to give up on Leopard, and I suspect the harsh realities of day-to-day life under Linux are different from idle petulance about Apple's Leopard preview. Remember, they're going from annual releases to a two-year cycle. This isn't a bad thing: I was getting mighty sick of having a new OS version to spring for every time I turned around.

Leopard isn't due for another year ("Spring 2007") so you can bet that Apple have plenty of cards up their sleeves. This WWDC was really a filler: no new OS release, no staggering new hardware. And, from the point of view of Apple developers reeling from the rapid transition to Intel hardware and the huge new stuff from Tiger (Spotlight! Dashboard! Freaky Core Graphics Stuff That Was Supposed To Let Us Write Photoshop In Twelve Lines Of Applescript!) it was nice to have a year to focus on doing things better rather than scrambling to catch up.

gnat   [08.10.06 06:37 PM]

jb: I can second your comment about backups being far from trivial. I was a sysadmin, I know the importance of backups, but my family still loses data all the time. Good on Apple for baking in the "easy" that was missing. And good on me for deciding against founding a startup based on network backups three months ago :-)

Nicholas   [08.10.06 08:03 PM]

Lotus-Borland case: there's no copyright in features...

john brewer   [08.10.06 08:59 PM]

An easy way to use a feature is probably more important than the feature itself. However, I think what a lot of people missed about Time Machine was the fact that the granularity went _beyond_ the file level. Apple showed the power of the API when they demonstrated bringing back a _single address record_ from a previous version of the Address Book. This is the power that any developer can now add to their app.

sjk   [08.11.06 01:14 PM]

jb: I can second your comment about backups being far from trivial.

One factor that can complicate backups and restores is how the association of relevant data with specific files isn't always apparent, especially for inexperienced users. Even when backups have been trivialized for novices the restoration process may require intervention by someone with enough skill and experience who can hopefully ensure data integrity.

What interests me most about Time Machine is its potential for more easily recovering data items, like lost address book records or iPhoto images, without knowledge of which files (and possibly other resources) are involved. It would be silly speculating now whether it'll be reliable and robust enough to gain general acceptance.

I see TM as an example of a user-centric innovation for the sake of freedom from certain complexities associated with the traditional and pervasive file-centric data management metaphor that's typically taken for granted.

sjk   [08.11.06 01:44 PM]

I hadn't noticed john brewser's comment about Time Machine (stuck in my blind spot) before posting mine so the redundancy was unintentional.

Mike Perry   [08.11.06 02:59 PM]

Don't forget that there are people like me around who, when they see a useful feature in a third-party application, post it as a suggestion on Apple's OS X Feedback page. So, when Apple adds those features, it's simply responding to users.

A case in point. I use Desktop Manager and something like it was my most wanted feature for 10.5. Although it's stable, the developer himself rates it "alpha" quality and hasn't issued a new release since May of last year. I really doubt he's lying awake at night, stewing in anger because Apple "stole" his idea. Imitation remains the sincerest form of flattery.

Miike Perry, Seattle Untangling Tolkien

Kent Sutherland   [08.11.06 07:10 PM]

"One thing to add to it that I haven't seen anyone bring up (not saying no one has, just haven't seen it) is that tabs were already in iChat. They just weren't activated for "user" yet. If you dig down in iChat you'll find the resource/image files for tabs. So basically the Chax developer took advantage of this feature and added the ability to "activate" it."

I'd just like to point out that this simply is completely untrue. While Apple may have had (and most likely did) tabs implemented in iChat at some point in time, tabs were not simply lying latent in iChat in any way whatsoever. Everything you see in Chax related to tabs has involved a huge amount of work in terms of completely rewriting how iChat works.

I personally am not quite sure what the huge fuss is over Apple adding features to iChat that are a natural evolution of the AV side of iChat while at the same time adding some basic things to iChat that have been sorely lacking for years. It seems completely unfair to try to beat up on Apple for fixing a program that has been borderline unusable in many areas for it's whole existence. I'm quite excited about what I've seen in the new iChat and I'm glad to see Apple adding features that should have been in iChat from the very start.

That's my impressions in terms of *just* Chax and iChat, as I personally hope Apple includes every useful feature in Chax or any other similar utility-like program into iChat. As Mike mentioned, I myself encourage many people who send me feedback to also send feedback to Apple requesting new features in iChat.

Kent Sutherland

Travis Saling   [08.11.06 08:56 PM]

The one time I was in agreement with these types of complaints was with Dashboard's ripping off of Konfabulator; which is funny because I hated Konfabulator (and am not a big Dashboard fan). But even there, Apple significantly improved on the idea - at the time, Konfabulator just put stuff right on the desktop which seemed fairly useless.

What's odd, though, is that this time around there are people like Chris and Phil who think they are acting as a proxy for certain developers who have always said "I did this simply because Apple didn't have this feature and I thought they should have done it themselves" (Chax, Desktop Manager). If the principals don't see a reason to complain, why do people feel the need to "advocate" for them?

As the article pointed out, almost all of these upcoming features predate OS X in one manner or another. I missed having functional virtual desktops from my Linux days; none of the third-party programs have quite implemented it how I'd like, so I'm excited to see Spaces finally giving us desktops done right (IMHO). And having cobbled together an rsync-based incremental backup system that has to be tweaked for the computer it runs on, I'm very happy to see Time Machine coming.

David Ivory   [08.12.06 11:53 AM]

The Konfabulator thing was a strange one - it's been pointed out ad nauseum that Desk Accessories have been there since the first version of Mac OS - and it was an obvious thing to do in OS X.

Can't remember who said it - but writing OS features is probably the single most problematic thing you can do... they are bound to be implemented at some stage. I know that I'd love for Safari to implement FTP, or for Finder to mount read and write to FTP shares... but Transmit would go the way of Audion... and Panic know this...

Their spin on the feature copying in general is here...

Read to the bottom for the reference to Transmit...

But I still wish FTP was implemented properly in Finder or Safari.... damn it - I want to mount FTP shares in Finder and upload to them - not just download... that's lame. To me an FTP application is just a poorly implemented Finder.

Ronald Pottol   [08.12.06 12:32 PM]

I want to see them licence Reiser4 from Namesys. Throw in some extra $ to get the transaction (it's used internally, just no way to talk to it from the aplication level) api writen, and you would have something quite amazing (Think all that stuff Microsoft talked up for WinFS, and realize that Namesys has been working on it for a decade, and it is a working thing for Linux today). Think of a real database that is not much more than some shell scripts (the file system handles the work). Full data journaling with no speed hit.

Apple needs to pay because the code is GPL, and my only be included with GPL kernels. They make their money from people who want features, and I think from licencing as well (I know they are open to it).

Damjan   [08.16.06 09:33 PM]

...This is the point of Creative Commons: that culture is accumulated, it doesn't emerge ex nihilo. Science is full of statements like Newton's "if I have seen further than others, then it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants."...

Only, Apple and Microsoft claim they are the sole source for inovation... each. So give them your money... and don't you dare implement anything that competes with them.

And someone mentioned that Apple is a *good* open-source player?!? From what I see Mac OS X is 90% FLOSS (Apache, Cups, Samba, FreeBSD, MACH, GCC, KHTML...) but how much do they contribute back? And what about that 10%. Their 10% are more worthy that everybody else's 90%... riiiight.

I don't think they deserve any respect or support.

Ilgaz   [09.10.06 04:13 PM]

Should we donate to Blacktree "Media Fund" or something just to give a full page advertisement to a newspaper explaining the obvious thing that Quicksilver is a data finder and MANIPULATOR, rather a suggestion how to use/interact with computer and none of these resembles "launchbar"?

I tried launchbar only ONCE and decided it is a goodly written commercial program concentrated on launching things and that is all. I didn't run to versiontracker saying Quicksilver will "kill launchbar" or "spotlight will kill both".

Please, please respect to that domain name ( you are writing to and spare 10 seconds to think about

1) What is Launchbar?
2) What is Quicksilver?
3) What is Spotlight?

I remember a regular user who got mad to Quicksilver somehow and shouted on forums "I WILL INSTALL LAUNCHBAR!!!" which made everyone laugh.

Should give a clue ;)

There are people writing very advanced spotlight/pyhton combined scripts who happens to be also a quicksilver plugin developer/community supporter.

Here is your second clue.

New Quicksilver comes with finally stable plugin offering "spotlight content search"

Third clue. ;)

How many clues does IT media need to figure what Quicksilver suggests? I mean it has been years already!

Ilgaz   [09.10.06 04:25 PM]

I would have couple of things to say for the Konfabulator thing but as story ended with happy ending ( ), I keep my thoughts to myself as well as many people out there.

Ordinary users could code widgets in a easy language (Lets say BASIC in those times) and add them to that old Dashboard which Apple invented?

Anyway, they didn't "die" or something, they are under Yahoo giant now and people use it for free now. As I said,happy ending.

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