Elementary My Dear Sherlock

(Originally posted 2019-06-08.)

Students of English literature won’t be alone in recognising the allusion in this post’s title.But this post isn’t about literature.[1].

Sherlocking, as described here is a phenomenon where a developer ships something – typically an app – but then Apple comes along and announces its own version of it.

In very recent memory, examples might be:

  • Enhancements to Apple’s Reminders apps on iOS and Mac OS versus Omnifocus and other “to do list” apps – in iOS 13 and Mac OS 10.15 Catalina.
  • NFC tags kicking off Apple Shortcuts automation versus LaunchCenter Pro’s support of NFC tags (described in Automation On Tap) – in iOS 13.
  • Apple Watch Calculator and PCalc – in Watch OS 6.

But what of it?

At first sight, having your app Sherlocked must be disheartening. But that’s not the end of the story.

What’s at risk for the vendor that gets Sherlocked is subscriptions and future sales. In other words, revenue. For some apps – particularly those that don’t use a subscription model – the sales pattern might be that most sales happen early in the app’s life. So before Sherlocking happens.

But it’s not that simple. Yes, Sherlocking represents a threat but it also represents an opportunity…

… A platform vendor legitimizes a marketplace by sensitising users to the value of a function. For example the new Watch OS Calculator app will introduce users to the idea of a calculator on their wrist.[2] But if PCalc were a better calculator than the Apple one it could still sell well. Fortunately it is. 😁

A built-in app gives one you have to buy a run for its money and free beats fee for many customers – if the basic function is good enough.

But the built-in (Sherlocking) app is usually relatively basic so a purchased app wins by differentiation from the basic. So the message is Sherlocked apps must up their game.

(For me, while I wouldn’t want to wear the “Power User” badge the basic function is rarely good enough. For example I use the excellent Overcast podcasting app instead of the Apple one and it’s inconceivable I wouldn’t use it and hardly conceivable I wouldn’t pay for the premium version.)

Having said that, first party apps have some additional opportunities for integration so could have some advantages. It’s difficult to compete against that. There are private APIs that only Apple can use – but those tend to open up over time.

Basic infrastructure – for example the Reminders database – done right allows third parties to use the infrastructure. Reminders data is shareable across platforms and with other third party apps designed to take advantage of the database.

A good example of a third party app using the Reminders database is Goodtask. Goodtask illustrates one downside of using the built in database, however: The developers had to use a lot of ingenuity to get round the limitations of the Reminders database: As they articulate here they use the Notes field for a task and had to invent their own metadata format.

Unfortunately Mail on iOS doesn’t have this open database and nor does Music.So email apps have to use their own databases – which is a real shame. It means, for instance, you can’t operate on the same email account with a mix of built-in and third party app functions. With Reminders and Goodtask you can.

Here’s an example of why I would want Mail to be open: My favourite email client – on Mac and iOS – is Airmail. I favour it because it has more automation hooks than the default Mail app. But I can’t use it with my work email account because it doesn’t share the default Mail app’s database.

Automation is one area where Apple – as the platform vendor – has an advantage. Those of us who are into automation are still waiting for better automation than x-callback-url[3] – as Shortcuts doesn’t provide a general automation mechanism for third-party apps. A more general mechanism would certainly help. But I digress.

In summary, Sherlocking does represent a threat but also an opportunity. The way to make it the latter is for Sherlocked app developers to continually innovate – to differentiate their apps from Apple’s. Thankfully the best developers are fleet of foot; I don’t envy their position but the best will survive.

If they do innovate at speed the net is the consumer benefits.


  1. Thankfully, given my background in Science and Technology. 🙂 But I’m not a complete philistine; Bits of me are missing. 🙂  ↩

  2. Not an entirely new idea, of course.  ↩

  3. I like x-callback-url so much I can often be seen sporting the t-shirt. 🙂  ↩

Published by Martin Packer

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