Is Apple harming the feature innovation ecosystem?

ios-control-center-2Yesterday, Apple announced iOS7, the latest version of its mobile operating system. It was a large change but perhaps the most interesting bit was Apple’s continuation of its rather tense relationship with the app developer community. To be sure, Apple has enabled that community and handed them $10 billion in revenue since 2008. However, once again, it appears to have taken been inspired by numerous innovations that came from app developers.

These can be classified into two broad groups: innovations by app developers and innovations by hackers/jailbreakers.

For app developers, the Calendar app appears to have a new layout reminiscent of the Sunrise app although there are others as well. A flashlight is now incorporated as a feature whereas many had developed separate apps. The Camera app has filters just like Hipstamatic and Instagram but this is something that many apps now have. And the new Safari tabs have some similarities to Chrome’s tabs. Apple also seemed coy about its Mail app but it looked like its way of dealing with email was not dissimilar to the new and popular Mailbox app.

Finally, the new Weather app has animations of, well, the weather. This doesn’t exist in an app but if this story is to be believed, Apple rejected a similar app for reasons related to the experience the app provides.

All this is not new. Apple integrated Reader functions into Safari (like Instapaper) and HDR into its camera that had previously only been available in apps.

For hackers, the new control center has been a long standing jailbreak option and the multitasking UI seems also similar to a jailbreak version. There are likely important background issues in both of these but there is a pattern here.

The message all this is sending is worrying. This creates a perception that Apple is ripping developers off and so will impact on their incentives to innovate. I must admit I am concerned more about this for app developers than for hackers. The reason is that hackers are often putting in these changes to use them themselves and so if Apple integrates and improves upon them, they reap a benefit. For app developers, there is a clear monetary cost.

Ultimately, there appears to be an issue with attribution. Now I realise that the world doesn’t work this way and legal risks may prohibit acknowledgement in ambiguous situations. But it would be a far better world if Apple could use innovations and integrate them and also acknowledge their origins. The end result may be app developers innovating more if only for the kudos associated with credit. The App Store was a great innovation. It is time for Apple to innovate and apply its design focus to the ecosystem so that it can work in a cleaner and less apparently dirtier manner.

6 Replies to “Is Apple harming the feature innovation ecosystem?”

  1. Great post, Joshua !
    This reminds me of my argument in the 2007 paper with Rebecca Henderson, in JEMS, Platform Owner Entry and Innovation in Complementary Markets (one of the top-cited papers in JEMS, from what I hear :))

    And congratulations on your new book !

    I am working on finishing up a paper precisely on this issue, I shall send it to you for comments when I am done.

    And, I am not sure you remember, but we had evoked the possibility of a paper together one day — on platforms? I am still interested. Tons to do — complementary skills ! 🙂 Be in touch!

  2. Calendars on electronic gizmos are an innovation that Apple is copying from third-parties?

    If it’s actually 1974, why do I have a laptop computer in front of me?

  3. This has always been true for platforms: you can find complaints about this effect (folding an aftermarket feature into the platform and impairing the third party developer) dating back to the earliest days of Macs and PCs. And it’s great for the user; the platform vendor uses the developer market to audition new features and rolls the best ones into the lowest-common-denominator platform.

    This is a basic risk of being a developer, and well-known in the community; there are a number of strategies you can take to minimize the risk (build stuff that doesn’t make sense in the platform, like games) and/or to cope with it (build enough value that you can’t be easily copied, try to sell your company to the platform vendor, build enough niche value that you still have a market even after the basic version is free to all users).

    Sure, it would be good if there was some way for platforms to pay, credit or otherwise benefit the developers they’re impinging upon, but we don’t want to create a property right around this, or it would be as bad as patents. And arguments about inspiration are always a waste of time.

    This is a well-known manageable risk for developers, and just a part of the give-and-take that adds and subtracts value from the iOS (or any other platform’s) ecosystem.

  4. This is not new to the iPhone, but has been a platform management issue for decades, with Windows, Mac OS (later OS X), Unix, VAX/VMS and maybe even System/360. Bundling a database or backup utility or web browser would hurt or kill the market for a 3rd party equivalent.

    When 20 years ago we were making system software for Mac OS 7, we complained to Apple about this. They said their first obligation was to make the platform better, and they would do whatever they needed to do so. (Others pointed out that a 3rd party product might reach 5-10% of the market, while Apple would serve the whole market).

    Apple was much better than Microsoft in this regard — relatively predictable about where it would or would not compete. I think Apple realized they needed their third parties while MS would crush them (NB: WordPerfect) if they stood in the way of incremental revenues.

    Still, we talked to other developers. They either worked in an area where Apple was unlikely to go, or (unlike us) planned to get all their revenues in the first 6 months so if it was rendered obsolete in 2 years, it didn’t matter.

    Today, it seems even less of a problem. Most of the iPhone apps seem to generate the bulk of their revenues in the first 90 days. Maybe the apps you list would have more legs, but that would be atypical.


  5. Apple closes some doors and opens others, but this has always been the case in any innovative business. There was a time when windshield wipers, safety horns and headlights were add on features for cars. Then Detroit realized that they couldn’t sell a car without them. That was bad for the add on sellers, but good for most drivers and passengers. There was a time when few homes had indoor plumbing or climate control systems, so there was a big 3rd party market for coal burners, water pumps and electric fans. Now most homes have indoor plumbing, furnaces and so on. It’s like that with computers.

    Maybe the big bucks in selling flashlight apps are over, but I can see IOS 7 opening up all sorts of new markets. For example, the partial 3D, driven by the accelerometer, used for the new system’s buttons could enhance all sorts of games. (Where is Fascination these days?) The new Mac Pro has opened a big space for high end processor packagers since the processor itself is rather minimal.The tighter integration of IOS and Mac OS also opens new areas for application designers since the synchronization problem is far from solved.

  6. Hi Joshua – I saw an example with a slight twist here (it links to the apps approval process).

    View at

    “My latest rejection, however, has me fuming — of a weather app I devloped a few months ago….
    … I suppose I trusted Apple—if they said that no one wanted to see weather in a beautiful realistic animation, then no one wanted to see it.
    …You might understand my shock when they unveiled a revamped weather app today. And its most defining new feature? Animated weather. Rain fell, snow drifted, hail dropped, and thunderstorms stormed—just as my app had so confidently done months before.”

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