How Apple searches the App Store for its new ideas


A customer inspects an Apple iPhone 5  in a Portugal Telecom SGPS SA mobile communications store in Lisbon on  Oct. 2, 2013. (Mario Proenca/Bloomberg)

When you break it down, much of the Internet economy works on the back of a platform. Zynga earns money by putting Farmville on Facebook. Crafty people make money by putting their wares on Etsy. This article makes money by way of a blogging platform. For the most part, people talk about platforms as a way to democratize innovation — they allow practically anyone to make their ideas publicly available, often for a profit.

But platforms aren't unidirectional. As much as they help fledgling artists and entrepreneurs, they can also serve as a source of ideas unto themselves, often to the benefit of the companies that run them.

Here's an example. The Verge reported Thursday on Omer Perchik, a 25-year-old developer who hired a bunch of Israeli intelligence officers to help design an app called Any.do. As it happens, Any.do's clean, flat interface attracted the attention of Apple's most influential designer, Jony Ive:

Along with music app Rdio, word game Letterpress, and competing task app Clear, Any.do was among the apps that Apple looked to for inspiration as it redesigned iOS, according to people familiar with the matter. When Jony Ive took over as the company’s head of design, he was given a list of forward-looking apps that suggested how iOS could evolve, these people said — and Any.do was on that list. (Apple did not respond to a request for comment.)

Apple's development processes are such a tightly held secret, only rarely do we hear how its products came to be. This is apparently one of those times. If the report is true, it suggests that the company actively mines the App Store for ideas, developing new projects out of the platform it built to serve customers.

This isn't the first time Apple's drawn concepts from the community and made them its own. Last year, Apple announced it was introducing Notification Center to Mac OS X, a feature that puts little pop-ups in the corner of your screen when you receive an email or calendar item. It mimics the functionality of Growl, a third-party program.

Updates to Apple's mobile browser, Safari, may also have been inspired by another app in the App Store, according to Rob Haining, an iOS developer for Digg. Haining was previously part of a team building a social reader called News.me, which trawled a user's Twitter and Facebook feeds for stories their friends had shared. In mobile Safari, users can integrate the browser with their Twitter feeds to see all the links being shared by those they follow.

"The core idea is similar in that you're pulling your social sources as sources for news," said Haining in an interview.

To say it's copying doesn't seem accurate, per se. What Apple is doing seems more like curation, or perhaps promoting good ideas that it thinks would work at scale.

While it might seem unfair that Apple can grab these ideas whenever it wants, it's simply another effect of a model that's, on the whole, yielded great benefits for the rest of us.

Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post, focusing on telecommunications and the Internet. Before joining the Post, he was the technology correspondent for National Journal and an associate editor at the Atlantic.

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Brian Fung · October 11, 2013

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