Extensions could be the App Store's next gold rush

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With barely a weekend separating us from whatever new products Apple has in store for us, it’s safe to say that the final version of iOS 8 will soon make its debut on an iPhone or iPad near you (and perhaps some other device that we haven’t yet seen), to be followed in a few weeks by OS X Yosemite.

Among the many innovations that the new launch will bring us is a feature called Extensions, which allows apps to collaborate by securely bits of functionality to each other. Extensions have been a long time coming, and they could well end up having a lasting effect on the entire Apple ecosystem.

Extend your stay

The basics of an extension are simple: They allow apps to “lend” bits of their functionality—like, say, a photo filter or custom keyboards—to the operating system, which then makes them available to other apps as needed. On iOS 8, extensions must be bundled inside what Apple calls “containing apps” that offer other functionality, but on OS X they can be distributed on their own, perhaps in an attempt to stem the tide of background apps that have been jockeying for a spot in our menu bars in recent years.

Though understated—it’s unlikely that Apple is erecting that giant building—just to showcase their functionality—extensions will serve two important roles.

The first will be to reduce duplication. Currently, individual developers have little choice but to build every last feature they need right into their apps, leading to a massive waste of time and resources as each program must be equipped with the same kind of functionality—for example, providing every possible editing capability in a photo app. The ability to openly leverage each other’s code will enable programmers to focus more on innovation and publish apps that are smaller, safer, and more useful.

Similarly, extensions will benefit users by allowing apps to interact in ways that their developers couldn’t anticipate or account for. For example, whereas apps must now be programmed to support cloud storage providers like Dropbox, extensions will make this functionality possible out of the box—and with the added benefit of supporting new providers as they enter the market.

A new gold rush?

Most importantly, however, extensions are the perfect conduit for the kind of small, focused apps that attracted so many independent developers to Apple’s platforms during the App Store’s early years. Just as larger players, with their deep pocketed marketing budgets, have started eating the lion’s share of App Store profits, extensions could bring about a new opportunity for indies to thrive and innovate.

Like everyone else, I can’t wait to see what new hardware Apple has in store for us next week. But I’m just as excited about the new possibilities that extensions will unlock in the coming months, particularly as they mature and are embraced by developers and users alike.

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