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Critics say many of Apple's new iPhone features were copied from other popular apps

: [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In this report, we incorrectly say that TapeACall is $80 a month. In fact, it’s $80 a year.]


Critics of Apple say many of the new features for its upcoming iPhone were copied from other popular apps. Fair play or an abuse of power? NPR tech correspondent Bobby Allyn reports on why the controversial practice known as sherlocking has dogged Apple for years.

BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: The headline from Apple's recent developer conference was all about its snappy AI tools. Under the headline was something else - a bunch of small updates, including the ability to record phone calls. Many apps have been offering this service for a while. A popular one is called TapeACall. It's $80 a month. Apple's version is free.

PHILLIP SHOEMAKER: If I was TapeACall, I'd be saying game over.

ALLYN: That's Phillip Shoemaker, a former Apple executive. TapeACall declined to comment, but it's not just them. Apple announced services similar to writing assistant app Grammarly, password manager 1Password, voice transcription app Otter, AI emoji app Newji and maps app AllTrails. Shoemaker says when he was at Apple, he heard complaints all the time from small app developers angry that Apple copied their service.

SHOEMAKER: Apple has all the data they need. They can look to see what apps are being used most by their customers and then say, hey, that's a great idea. Let's integrate that into our operating system. We can do a much better job.

ALLYN: The practice is called being sherlocked. It dates back to the '90s, when Apple introduced a desktop search tool known as Sherlock that replicated another desktop search program called Watson. Since then, the term has stuck. When I reach out to several apps that have been sherlocked, their responses surprised me. They didn't exactly express outrage. Instead, they issued statements basically saying, we welcome competition. We respect Apple.

RICK VANMETER: Many of these developers fear retaliation and are very cautious in what they say about Apple. It's something that we unfortunately see every single day.

ALLYN: That's Rick VanMeter. He's the executive director of the group Coalition for App Fairness, which represents more than 80 popular apps.

VANMETER: Apple is not only a competitor, but it also sets the rules of the marketplace.

ALLYN: That marketplace is the App Store. Apple is its gatekeeper, so many app developers think it's just too risky to speak out against them. Some companies have fought back and sued Apple, but Shoemaker says the more common strategy is to say nothing at all.

SHOEMAKER: Third party companies do not want to bite the hand that feeds them because they are the only method, for the most part, of getting an app onto your device.

ALLYN: And often, the sherlocked app pivots to another service or is even put out of business entirely. Apple, of course, became one of the richest companies in the world through its own innovation, but also by taking from other people. Apple co-founder Steve Jobs famously said, quote, "we have always been shameless about stealing great ideas." When I reached out to Apple, they wouldn't comment, but the company has previously said that it welcomes healthy competition and going toe to toe improves services for everyone. John Gruber is a tech blogger who has focused on Apple for more than two decades.

JOHN GRUBER: The truth is, Apple, you know, like any successful company, plays hardball.

ALLYN: He says it's not just Apple. If you're a small company and you come up with a clever idea, there's a pretty good chance a larger company or a social media platform will try to do it themselves.

GRUBER: It's just the way the software industry works, historically.

ALLYN: Some small app developers have become so worried about it that if Apple reaches out to them, they start to get freaked out. Yes, an Apple collaboration or acquisition would be a big payday to a smaller app company. But if Apple holds meetings, ask questions and then introduces its own version of their services, well, that's been described as Apple's kiss of death. Bobby Allyn, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Corrected: June 24, 2024 at 5:41 PM CDT
In this report, we incorrectly say that TapeACall is $80 a month. In fact, it’s $80 a year.
Bobby Allyn is a business reporter at NPR based in San Francisco. He covers technology and how Silicon Valley's largest companies are transforming how we live and reshaping society.