When Operating Systems Encroach on Third-Party Developers

Sunday, 2003-10-26; 20:55:00

Did Apple really ripoff Proteron's product?

(Originally posted on AppleXnet)

With the release of Panther, it happened again. Remember when Apple took the idea of Watson, and incorporated it into Sherlock 3 in Jaguar? With Panther, Apple stole yet another feature from a third-party product and incorporated it into their new operating system.

Well, not really. In reality, the situation is much more complicated. A third-party developer only claims that Apple stole the feature.

Proteron, developer of LiteSwitch X, recently posted an open memo to Apple Computer about Apple outright copying LiteSwitchX. If you haven't yet installed Panther, the new Command-tab functionality to switch between open applications in Panther has been changed from using the Dock to popping up a entirely separate panel in the center of the scren on top of all applications. This has numerous benefits, including increased visibility and usability. In the memo, Proteron claims that Apple stole this feature from them. The memo even includes mention of the Watson/Sherlock 3 fiasco over which many people got riled up. At first glance it seems that Apple has trampled the "little guy" yet again. But the claims of Proteron are dubious, at best.

In the memo, Proteron first congratulates and then derides Apple for including the nice new feature Panther. In particular, Proteron puts the word "improvement" in quotes in their open memo. Is Proteron trying to say that the feature is only an improvement if Proteron develops it? Furthermore, they claim that the feature in Panther is a "near pixel duplication of a Proteron product". That's an outright lie. First of all, while the panel looks incredibly similar, the selection rectangle in Panther is rounded while in LiteSwitch X it isn't. Furthermore, the name of the selected application in LiteSwitch X is always centered along the bottom of the panel, rather than being centered on the icon itself.

But these are trivial differences. I'll grant Proteron that on first glance, the features look incredibly similar. But it is hardly a near pixel duplication of LiteSwitch X. It seems that LiteSwitch X is incredibly full-featured compared to the feature in Panther. Just look at the screenshots for yourself. LiteSwitch X includes a preference pane that allows you to enable/disable the feature, change the hot key, and change window layering. LiteSwitch X allows you to flag programs to be quit instead of having them quit immediately when you press the Q key (as in Panther). LiteSwitch X can drag and drop items to the various applications using the panel (implying that the panel can remain on the screen without having to hold down the Command key, as Panther requires). LiteSwitch X allows the icons to be very small even if you have few open applications, and it has contextual menus. It is chock full of features, if you ever have need for them. "Near pixel" duplication? Not at all. The fact that Proteron has the statement "Dear Apple: You forgot some important features" on the LiteSwitch X main page shows that Proteron is completely aware of this fact. So why do they lie in their open memo?

Continuing on, Proteron requests that Apple "officially recognize that LiteSwitch X played a role in the formation of Panther's switcher." Wow, that's incredibly arrogant. How does Proteron know that an employee at Apple is intimately familiar with LiteSwitch X? How does Proteron know that Apple didn't "steal" the feature from Windows, which has had this feature for a long time? More importantly, why doesn't Proteron acknowledge that Windows played a role in developing "LiteSwitch X"?

Proteron goes on to reference the Sherlock 3/Watson issue, which is a completely different situation, because Apple actually DID include most of the features of Watson into Sherlock 3. While Proteron may indeed be the "little guy", I don't believe they're the victim in this case. And demanding that Apple recognize you even though you don't know if you deserve to be recognized is entirely disgraceful. Accusing Apple of trampling third party developers is also dubious, because this is only the second time this has happened in the 2.5 years that Apple has had Mac OS X out on the market.

Frankly, I think that Proteron is simply trying to get pity from users and trying to get free publicity, because they know that many Mac users will be inflamed by this latest "incident". I've linked to your home page and product pages, Proteron -- hopefully it'll get you a few registrations: you sure don't deserve it.

But let's revisit the Sherlock 3/Watson fiasco for a minute. Did Apple really trample Karelia by ripping off Watson and including it into Sherlock 3? I don't believe so.

See, many users have pointed out that Sherlock 3 was a natural evolution of Sherlock. When Apple included file searching in Sherlock back in Mac OS 8.5, I and many other Mac users were annoyed, because file searching belonged in the Finder! After all, isn't a "Finder" supposed to "find" stuff for you? When Apple finally resolved this situation by incorporating the find panel back into the Finder in Jaguar, Sherlock would have been a useless little application without an entire revamp. And being able to get content from the web without having to use a web browser was already Sherlock's "forté"; it just presented the content in a Google-style search results fashion. So why not improve it? That's exactly what Apple did.

I bought Watson for Mac OS X before Jaguar ever came out, and I'm not sorry that I bought my copy. Watson was incredibly useful, and it still is. That's because Watson has many features over Sherlock, including package tracking, weather tracking, VersionTracker searching (side note: if you haven't abandoned VersionTracker yet, I suggest you dump it for MacUpdate), up-to-date exchange rate calculator, and a recipe search, among other things. I don't use those features all the time, but if I did have a need, I would use Watson since I can't even do that with Sherlock.

However, even though Sherlock 3 did "rip off" many of Watson's features, Watson is still around because the developer decided to improve his product. Yes, Karelia stirred up the Mac news sites, too, by doing the same thing that Proteron just did. But I believe that both developers were in the wrong. Apple made its own improvements independent of the third-party products.

Where do we draw the line? Apple can't just not include a feature because someone else has implemented it. Apple needs to make sales off its operating system, and they have to include useful features for the $129 to be worthwhile. If Apple never implemented in its operating system what someone else had already done, the operating system would be entirely unusable because you would have to buy third-party products just to cover the basic use of the operating system! On the other hand, Apple can't realistically "credit" all third-party developers whenever Apple implements a third-party feature into its operating system, because it would look like Apple has no innovation, it would likely cost Apple a lot, and, on top of everything else, the third-party products would likely not have had anything to do with developing the feature. Chances are, if a feature is useful, people will have submitted the feature to Apple via its feedback page, without knowing of similar third-party products that do what they want. And in the case of Watson, Apple may have already had a prototype of Sherlock 3 long before Watson was ever released!

I can think of a number of third-party products that were "copied" by Apple and included in Mac OS X. After all, Mail includes a bunch of features that Entourage or MailSmith have. iChat includes a bunch of features that Proteus has. Apple "copied" Adobe Reader with Preview. Apple "copied" Palm Desktop with iCal. Apple even "copied" SoundJam with iTunes (oh, wait, no, they bought it). These applications all perform similar functions, and the developers of those third-party products hardly have the right to complain about it. While Apple's "copies" are clearly not "near pixel" duplications of the products, neither was Sherlock 3 or the new application switcher in Panther.

On the other hand, developers do have the right to complain when Apple rips off a product and integrates it into the operating system. But not in the case of Watson and LiteSwitch X. If Apple ripped off iBlog and included that in the operating system, Lifli Software would have the right to be pissed. This would be because 1) it would be a new iApp, coming out after iBlog was released, 2) it would not be a natural evolution of any of Apple's existing products, and 3) it is not an essential operating system feature. Could it be that this is why Apple is providing iBlog free for .Mac users, and didn't develop iBlog by itself after iBlog was released?

Seeing that neither LiteSwitch X nor Watson fit the above three criteria for an Apple ripoff, I don't think Proteron or Karelia have any right to complain about the inclusion of "their product" in Mac OS X. It's just a case of sour grapes, and wanting free publicity.

If Proteron has any common sense whatsoever, they will drop this issue and continue to develop LiteSwitch X and promote it as a better product than what Panther has to offer. And it seems that it's a no-brainer that LiteSwitch X is better: Panther's application switcher doesn't offer nearly as many features as LiteSwitch X does. After the Sherlock 3 debacle, Karelia has decided to continue to enhance Watson and provide more functionality over Sherlock. That's a good move. So if Proteron wants to stay in business, it better follow the same path that Karelia did, instead of complaining without merit.

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