Under The Microscope

Restarting Innovation

For a long time, there’s been debate about just how much functionality the operating system should encompass. As I noted in The Rise Of The OS, the operating system has gradually been acquiring more and more functionality that was once the domain of third-party software. In many cases, this is a necessary step to advance general computing, but it can be unfortunate for those developers who pioneered new markets.

This issue has come up many times in the Mac community, when Apple has taken over a market. iTunes and Mail have put a hurt on the MP3 and mail markets, respectively. In some cases, such as Sherlock 3 or Dashboard Widgets, Apple’s effectively recreated existing third-party software and included it in the OS, sparking debate on what constitutes a rip-off.1

Today, I’m not interested in debating what Apple has or has not ripped off from third party developers. The simple fact of the matter is that when Apple releases a major new application and bundles it free with the OS, it has the potential to be a game changer.

Indeed, when Apple2 absorbs a market into the OS, several major events occur. Most obvious, the functionality in question generally becomes much more widespread. By virtue of receiving Apple’s blessing, this functionality is suddenly mainstream. Good for users, who gain new functionality. However, there are also two different parties who wind up losing out when a market closes down.

Group 1: Developers

Most obvious, the developers who first settled that market generally get forced out. Competing with a free and bundled application, as a third-party developer, is incredibly tough.But while we certainly have a self-interest in developer relations, the developers who get locked out are a very small group, and tend to land on their feet. I don’t have a broad solution for this problem, besides advising third parties to stay nimble and adapt fast.

Group 2: Users

The far larger group losing out when Apple absorbs a market is the end users of the OS . How can that be, when Apple has provided an Apple-branded solution for a given need? The problem arises from the fact that Apple is not married to any particular new market. As such, the provided solutions are seldom deep. They do the job for many, perhaps even most users, but as with all software, they’re seldom complete.In the comments for The Rise Of The OS, Rory Prior of ThinkMac notes:“You end up in a situation where the bundled apps aren’t necessarily that great but the environment has been starved of enough oxygen that a healthy ecosystem of 3rd party alternatives can’t really survive. It would be nice to see Apple recognising this and working more with the wider developer community instead of trying to go it alone so much.”

How About Frameworks?

It seems to me that there is a solution and it’s one we’ve seen before, from Apple even – frameworks. Apple released the WebKit framework back in 2005, and it’s now in use in dozens of applications, from browsers to RSS readers to other seemingly unrelated apps. WebKit has been a boon for OS X, making it a richer platform.

So perhaps a MailKit framework is in order, and maybe others as well. Just as they’ve done with rendering the web, Apple’s already done the heavy lifting on email. Mail.app has the POP, IMAP, and SMTP backend that’s required for every modern email client, but currently only Mail has access to the code. Rewriting this from scratch would take months, and when it was all done, you’d be effectively at square one. Only with this backend in place can you really begin to build new features on top of an email client.

If Apple decides to release such frameworks, developers will still be in a tough spot. A framework wouldn’t change the reality of competing with a free and bundled first party solution. It would, however, lower the barrier to entry. With MailKit, and other similar frameworks, innovation could be restarted in previously stagnant areas. Adventurous developers could take a chance on both freeware and commercial applications, with less investment required. When that happens, everyone wins.

Footnotes:

1. To be sure, not all claims of appropriated IP have equal merit.

2. This applies to any OS vendor, of course, but current reality means that’s just Apple and Microsoft. As a Mac company, we’re focused on Apple.

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