The Big Picture

Karelia's Watson ($29; www.karelia.com) was the first Mac OS X application to transform Web services from a toy on the playground of nerd recess into something useful for real people. Watson's clean and powerful presentation immediately earned the application legions of fans, who were aghast when Apple announced the remarkably similar Sherlock 3.

But if you're expecting a lengthy battle for the Web-services crown, stand down. It was over before it began, and Sherlock 3 won.

The Rise and Fall of Sherlock

Sherlock 3 is the revival of an idea that Apple birthed, and then nearly killed with incompetence. The original Sherlock, way back in Mac OS 8.5, queried multiple search engines for you simultaneously; it then combined the results, sorted them by relevance, and displayed them in one handy platinum list instead of in six or thirteen ad-filled Web-browser windows. Its Internet Search Sites were simple, formatted text files. People quickly figured out how to alter those files to add support for other search engines.

It was a smashing success. Webmasters got their sites included in the hot new Macintosh utility of the year, complete with advertisements in the Sherlock window to help pay the bills. You, in return, got to search lots of sites at once. Within months, hundreds of Sherlock plug-ins were available, leading to new utilities just to manage them. The search engine was conquered.

Too Clever by Half

At first, Sherlock 2 looked like another hit. New types of plug-ins searched shopping sites, sorting results by price or availability, or news sites, sorting results by date. Sherlock 2 grouped sites into channels, so you could search for books or car parts, for example, without wasting time on irrelevant sites.

Unfortunately, Apple made at least one big mistake in Sherlock 2, aside from a brushed-metal design that made it look like a reject from a metal-shop production of Star Trek. The program would display only plug-in ads specifically approved by Apple.

It seems that some plug-ins displayed ads that were inappropriate for smaller humans. Rather than take on the difficult task of limiting what plug-ins curious youngsters could drop into the System Folder, Apple dropped the ads from third-party plug-ins, replacing them with ads for Apple's own products.

Suddenly Sherlock 2 became a bad idea for Web-site managers. Its results window no longer displayed the ads that paid for the search engines' operation, an important counterbalance to the traffic those sites were losing because users were searching with Sherlock instead of a Web browser capable of displaying ads. Within the space of a few months, the thriving Sherlock community all but vanished, and several existing plug-ins stopped working as Webmasters disabled special Sherlock support. Sherlock 2 wound up crippling the original version, and the technology languished for three years. Apple nearly killed its own award-winning technology in the name of censorship.

Third Time's the Charm

Meanwhile, the Web evolved. Parsing HTML from Web pages became outdated. The new model is the Web service: an application sends a small XML-formatted request to a Web server, and the server returns the requested data, also in XML format. Instead of receiving and discarding pounds of unwanted HTML, a Web-services client gets exactly what it wants with little overhead.

It took Watson to show why this mind-numbing detail matters. Using Watson, you don't have to click through dozens of Web pages to find movie listings -- instead, Watson displays them for you in hierarchical lists, complete with plot summaries and QuickTime movie trailers. All that information is available from movie-oriented Web sites, but not in a single convenient window custom-built for the purpose. Web servers include lots of HTML to make pretty Web pages that surround the information you want. Watson gets the raw information and displays it in a standard Aqua interface. The program won many awards, including a Macworld Editors' Choice Award (February 2003).

However, the same week that Apple presented Watson with a 2002 Apple Design Award, the company announced Sherlock 3. By the most improbable of coincidences, it also displayed the results of Web services in an OS X window, complete with a nearly identical toolbar and most of the same services.

Apple has lamely protested innocence from time to time, arguing that Web services were a logical evolution for Sherlock, but Watson had debuted six months earlier to great reviews. Apple had certainly seen Watson long before Sherlock 3 appeared and still chose to make its product look and act almost exactly like Karelia's product. I don't know whether Apple was at work on a Web-services client before December 2001, but the finished product used Watson's award-winning ideas while Apple's management pretended it had innovated something. It's a step up from appropriating a bad design, but not much of one.

Endgame?

Watson, now the oppressed underdog, has retained fans, in part because it's much faster than Sherlock 3 -- but that may be its undoing. It was created with Cocoa, Apple's rapid-application-development system for OS X.

Sherlock 3, on the other hand, uses channels written in JavaScript and XQuery, an XML-based query language for Web services. Remember that Sherlock's multisite searching originally took off because anyone with a working knowledge of HTML could make a Sherlock plug-in. Only Cocoa developers can write Watson plug-ins, but anyone with advanced Web-site-building skills can write a Sherlock 3 channel.

There were more third-party Sherlock 3 channels a month after Apple had released the specification than there were third-party Watson plug-ins after Watson had been around for a year, and the number is still growing. Watson generally gets new tools because Karelia writes them in-house, but third parties are all over Sherlock 3's channels.

Watson will always be faster than Sherlock 3, but that won't make much difference if there are hundreds more Sherlock 3 channels available. Also, since both Watson and Sherlock 3 plug-ins have complete control over what they display, there's no more ad filtering. With Mac OS X, controlling access is easier anyway: if you don't want some users seeing some tools, you simply don't install them for those users.

Pioneers often lose in the marketplace, but Karelia is far from doomed: there's nothing stopping some future version of Watson from using Sherlock 3 channels, as well as its own binary tools. That may be Watson's best bet. Sherlock 3 is included with Jaguar and bundled on all new Macs. It includes most of Watson's features out of the box, and it's growing far more rapidly. Not many people will pay $29 for a program that does less, faster.

A new Watson that's a superset of Sherlock 3 could remain a must-have utility. Otherwise, Sherlock 3 wins. No good code goes unpunished.

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