When Apple Battles Indie Devs, Who Wins?S

We all know how David and Goliath ended (BOOM, HEADSHOT). But what happens when Apple takes on the little guy, mimicking (or worse) their software? History is mixed—sometimes David flourishes, sometimes David get stomped the hell out.

The question is fresh on our minds with the news that the Apple trademark mill has ground out "Noteworthy"—a note-wrangling (and scanning) app that sounds a hell of a lot like Evernote. A trademark is just a piece of paper—until it isn't. If Noteworthy becomes an Apple-backed Evernote clone, uh, what happens to Evernote? There's no clear precedent—but it is part of the Apple/Software Development Great Circle of Life. Or death.

The fate of Evernote is likely on the mind of Marco Arment, creator of Instapaper—a program recently targeted by the Apple clone machine, with the announcement of Safari's impending "Reading List" feature. Which is essentially Instapaper, built into Safari.

Marco has reason to worry—Safari users make up 40% of his base. A hefty number to be potentially pulled out of his side of the ring. Marco has reason to worry, but he isn't. The way he sees it, Apple's idea poaching will put money in his pocket, not an eviction notice on his door. Why? The Starbucks Effect. Instead of putting indie coffeeshops out of business, Starbucks locations sometimes turn people on to coffee consumption, and coffee competition. Marco thinks Reading List will point people toward Instapaper:

If Apple gets a bunch of Safari users—the browser that works best with Instapaper—to get into a "read later" workflow and see the value in such features, those users are prime potential Instapaper customers. And it gives me an easier way to explain it to them: "It's like Safari's Reading List, but better, in these ways."

So there sits an optimistic—and not out of the question—outlook.

On the other hand, there are the developers whose indie coffeeshops had a Starbucks steamroller driven through them.

Remember Konfabulator, the desktop widget company that was snatched up by Yahoo? Maybe. But it's probably been a while since you last thought about them if you use OS X, as Apple evaporated it with its own integrated widgets in Dashboard. Why would you download something when it's built into your OS and just as good?

Or Andrew Enright, whose novel CoverFlow interface was no longer his when Apple bought it outright—but at least he got some cash for his idea.

And then, there's the Audion odyssey. The robust music player was first birthed when MP3s weren't even all that popular—way ahead of Apple's inevitable Emperor Palpatine-grasp on digital music. Programmed by a team of two young dudes, Audion beat Apple to the punch, and ducked offers from AOL in order to stay independent. Soon, they were reading about a new OS X music player—a little upstart called iTunes. It wasn't quite as sophisticated, but it was Apple's music player. It was free. It was on every Mac. And it had the iron freight train will of Steve Jobs behind it—"I don't think you guys have a chance," he remarked to one of Audion's devs at Macworld.

And Jobs was right. Audion persisted, but ultimately capitulated. You can't fight that kind of ubiquity—not when you're paying rent with your shareware sales. So, the devs (of Panic, who make terrific stuff), dropped Audion to focus on other software. But not a photo management application, as Apple slyly warned them against before the release of iPhoto. It's a good thing they didn't.