What is the difference between Apple Sherlocking an app and Amazon Basics copying existing products? In this post we'll attempt to answer this question, and possibly draw conclusions for how large companies should handle this situation.
In case you are unaware, Sherlocked refers to Apple making 3rd party apps obsolete. Back in the 90s Apple created an awesome piece of software called Sherlock which some claim copied functionality from an existing piece of popular software. Sherlocked is now a common term for Apple copying existing software and (potentially) eliminating the need for that software alternative.
Amazon Basics has also been known to copy existing products and has received quite a bit of backlash for it.
Most of this article will focus on Apple as there is more nuance when it comes to software. For a physical product, it does seem things are more clear when you are able to look at styling choices, product positioning, and even physical dimensions. It makes it a little harder to say that these choices are arrived at independently or that you are bringing something new to the table.
Most Recent Sherlocked Software
From WWDC21 Keynote here are a few of the software changes that have been copied/potentially Sherlocked:
|Apple's Announcement||Existing Software||Notes|
|Voice isolation for FaceTime||NVIDIA RTX Voice||Not Mac specific so won't eliminate, plus RTX is useful for more than voice calls.|
|Portrait Mode for FaceTime||Zoom||Feature level copies like this aren't as big of a deal to me. (Same with FaceTime links.)|
|Live Text||Notefuel, and others apps that do OCR or image recognition||This one eliminates the need for a couple different specialty apps for me.|
|Visual Look Up||Google Lens|
|Weather||Dark Sky and other apps||In this case, Apple actually acquired Dark Sky. But they have also shutdown Dark Sky's API which means many apps will no longer work (if developers give up) or they have to find a new data source.|
|Maps||Google Maps||In some areas it looks like they have gone beyond Google Maps, but some things such as AR directions is a copy (though due to timelines of these things they may have been working on it at the same time).|
|Privacy in mail||MailTrackerBlocker||I'm sure there are many apps along this line.|
|iCloud+ PrivateRelay||All VPNs?||There are still some questions out about what is different about this vs a VPN, but they look very similar.|
|iCloud+ Hide My Email||Throttle|
|Artist Spotlight Series for Fitness+||Peloton Artist Series|
|Universal Control||Synergy and Share Mouse plus others.||Though Apple's implimentation takes it a level deeper with iPad integration. Something only they could build.|
|AirPlay to Mac||AirServer|
|Safari Tab Groups||SessionBuddy and others.|
|Object Capture||Lots of dedicated software companies this site lists 11 of them.||This change appears to be an API level thing, so not eliminating other software quite yet, but maybe reducing as much need for it in some markets.|
|XCode Cloud||Overlap with a lot of CI tools such as BitRise|
I am sure I have missed a few of them. I don't know about all the software that exists out there.
Trying to classify these different types of Sherlocked features is difficult.
- Feature level adoption - a lot of the changes are just small enhancements for Apple, such as voice isolation or portrait mode in FaceTime. These aren't going to really eliminate the need for an existing product.
- But then you get to Hide My Email and there are businesses built entirely around that.
- OS level integration like Universal Control completely eliminate the need for a 3rd party app if you are entirely in the Apple ecosystem.
- New apps/updates like the Weather app eliminate a competitor (by buying them) but also other competitors by shutting down the API. Some companies are able to survive being Sherlocked like this (e.g. Dropbox) because they provide additional functionality beyond the basics.
- The benefit is that these features become more mainstream. Many people didn't know that these alternative businesses or options existed so being built in is a good thing.
- Apple's integration is usually really well done and sometimes better than the original options (see Live Text).
- From Apple's perspective these are normal progressions/additional features to their products.
- Some companies are hurt (eliminated?) by Apple's moves.
- What stops Apple from seeing the most popular apps on the App Store and building the in-house version of it? (i.e. doing what Amazon and grocery stores do.)
Bottom line is that this is a messy situation. From Apple's perspective there is no clean solution.
They can't have a "Sherlocked fund" where they pay $100K or even $1M to the top companies that are hurt by their changes. That would be submission that they are causing other companies damage (hello lawsuits). They could attempt to always acquire those companies like they did with Dark Sky, but most of the time they aren't lacking the expertise/IP to do it on their own and that would be a waste of capital.
I think Sherlocking is different than Amazon Basics in that Sherlocking often has Apple's spin on things. OS integration is an obvious difference that others can't replicate, but Apple also tends to put a level of polish on features that few companies can match. Amazon Basics seems to focus on cheaper versions of a product and mostly replicating the work that someone else did (and again, I start to think that this is what Apple is doing, they are just implementing things "the Apple way"). Amazon isn't adding any innovation to those products outside of cheaper manufacturing.
So while Apple can't/shouldn't change, small companies can. They can build products that are more than a feature. Create a value add that goes beyond the basics that Apple may provide someday. If there is no value add to be had, know your days are numbered. Try to diversify with other products or across platforms.
It would be great if there was a dedicated site that was a me-too site. All the Serlocked companies that have additional value to add to customers. "If you like X from Apple, you should try out Y."