Developer Two-Step

The whispers began practically the moment Steve Jobs wrapped up his preview of Tiger at June’s Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC). Dashboard, one of the new features Jobs showed off during this look at the upcoming OS X update, is a Mac-interface layer for controlling miniature Javascript-based programs such as a calculator, an iTunes controller, and a calendar.

Dashboard also bears an uncanny resemblance to Konfabulator, a program from third-party developers Arlo Rose and Perry Clarke. And that’s where the controversy lies.

To Rose and Clarke, the similarities of their Konfabulator and Apple’s Dashboard—from the interface and functionality to the use of the term widgets to describe the mini-applications—are too close to make Dashboard anything other than a blatant copy. “Why would a company tick off a developer whose whole purpose is to try to get more people to come to this company’s platform by doing cool things?” Rose asks. “If this is what they do with the products they think are the best, then why would anyone have any reason to develop more cool stuff? I certainly don’t.”

Apple declined to comment for this story. However, in the wake of WWDC, the company stressed that Dashboard is its own creation and that widgets have long been a part of both Mac OS X and the NextStep OS.

The dispute between Apple and Konfabulator’s makers is hardly the first time a third-party developer has butted heads with the creator of an operating system. But it is the latest incident to illustrate the fine line Apple has to walk: between extending the functionality of OS X and alienating third-party developers with the updates it introduces. With major OS updates now routinely adding more than 150 features and enhancements, Apple is bound to step on a few toes.

“This is not a new phenomenon,” says Michael Gartenberg, vice president and research director of Jupiter Research. “OS vendors have clearly shown that one of the ways they extend the functionality of their systems is by incorporating things that might have been stand-alone features.”

The Way We Were

To put it another way, what’s part of Mac OS today didn’t necessarily get its start there. For example, Mac users these days wouldn’t think twice about burning a CD or compressing a file from the Finder. Those functions are integrated into OS X. But it wasn’t too long ago that either task would have been impossible without software from Roxio or Aladdin Systems (now known as Allume), for instance.

What criteria do Apple use when determining what outside functionality to add to its OS? In some cases, it comes down to adding features that aren’t widely available or simply improving functionality. For example, when Apple introduced OS X, there were almost no native applications. By integrating Mail into the OS, Apple allowed users to send and receive e-mail without having to enter Classic mode.

In other cases, Apple adopts features that improve the ease of use of its operating system. Think back to System 7.5 and its introduction of built-in TCP/IP stacks (what your computer uses to dial the Internet and to transfer data with other computers). “Apple was the first vendor to include a TCP/IP stack,” Gartenberg says. “Before Apple did that, there were lots of TCP/IP vendors.” These days, consumers would balk at bringing home a computer that didn’t include built-in networking and Internet software.

The impact of these moves on developers can vary. The presence of Mail in OS X hasn’t stopped developers, including Qualcomm, Microsoft, and Bare Bones Software, from continuing to update their own OS X-compatible e-mail clients. In fact, Bare Bones CEO Rich Siegel is sanguine about bundled software—Bare Bones’ Mailsmith, TextWrangler, and Super Get Info all pick up where Apple’s bundled products leave off—noting that it can create an opportunity for vendors in niche markets.

“The fact that the OS vendor includes the same sort of product isn’t a problem for us,” says Siegel, who notes that even if 90 percent of Mac users stick with Apple’s Mail, “that leaves 10 percent of the customer base that wants something different. And that’s still a huge number of people.”

The effect of integrating TCP/IP stacks into Mac OS was more dramatic; once Mac users no longer needed to buy third-party applications such as MacTCP, the makers of those products essentially disappeared.

Then there’s the case of Karelia Software and its Web-search tool Watson. When Apple released OS X 10.2 in 2002, it came with an updated Sherlock application that had many of the same functions as Watson. The third-party program endured another two years by trying to outdo Sherlock, with features such as a reference library; a zip code finder; package tracking; fully supported weather, Amazon.com, and Google searching; and a faster, more customizable interface. But Karelia will cease to develop or support Watson. In July, Karelia sold Watson’s technology to Sun Microsystems.

Opportunity Knocks

So for a company like Apple, where does improving its OS end and squeezing developers begin? “The notion of Desk Accessories was invented by Apple,” Gartenberg says, speaking about Konfabulator. “The fact that Apple is refining this again as a part of Tiger should not be surprising.”

Rose doesn’t disagree that Desk Accessories may have come first, but notes a crucial difference between that classic Mac feature and Konfabulator. Unlike predecessors, Konfabulator lets users create accessories—and so does Dashboard.

Regardless of who’s right, there’s no getting around the fact that if Apple adopts the functionality of an outside app into its OS, developers are going to feel the squeeze. However, there are instances where Apple’s entry into one area has opened up opportunities for software makers elsewhere. Gartenberg concludes that this is a natural evolution of the marketplace.—mathew honan (Jim Dalrymple contributed to this report.)

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