Apple’s ‘Sherlocking’ Strategy: Impact on Third-Party Apps and Consumer Choice


Apple’s approach of integrating ideas from its third-party developer community into new iOS and Mac features and apps comes at a significant cost, according to a recent report. The upcoming release of iOS 18 this autumn is anticipated to impact apps that collectively generated approximately $393 million in revenue and were downloaded around 58 million times over the past year, as analyzed by app intelligence firm Appfigures.

Each June at Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference, the company previews forthcoming updates to its software and operating systems, often incorporating functionalities previously exclusive to third-party apps. This practice has become so commonplace that it has been dubbed “sherlocking,” referencing a historical Mac search app that adopted features from a third-party counterpart named Watson in the 1990s. When Apple introduces a new feature that was once the domain of a third-party app, it is said to have “sherlocked” the app.

Historically, the practice of sherlocking apps has been rationalized by the integration of frequently used features into Apple’s own ecosystem, such as the inclusion of a native flashlight on the iPhone. This strategy has allowed Apple to enhance its software offerings in line with consumer preferences, based on popular functionalities from the third-party developer community.

However, questions have arisen regarding Apple’s use of proprietary data to inform its product decisions, as well as concerns about fair competition with the apps it emulates. For instance, prior to launching its own parental controls system, Apple discontinued several third-party apps in the same category, citing non-compliance with its policies. These apps were deprived of a developer API for managing Apple’s built-in parental controls for an extended period, prompting scrutiny from antitrust regulators.

In recent years, Apple has continued to “sherlock” third-party developers with the introduction of features like Continuity Camera, medication, sleep and mood tracking, as well as apps such as Freeform and Journal. The focus in 2024 has extended to password managers, call recording and transcription apps, custom emoji creators, AI-driven writing tools, math aids, and trail apps, among others.

Appfigures’ analysis of third-party apps that garnered over 1,000 downloads annually revealed several categories targeted by Apple in 2024. In terms of global revenue, trail apps emerged as the highest grossing category at $307 million per annum, led by AllTrails, the 2023 Apple “App of the Year.” Grammar helpers like Grammarly followed with $35.7 million, while math aids and password managers generated $23.4 million and $20.3 million, respectively. Custom emoji makers accounted for $7 million in revenue.

Image Credits: Appfigures

Among these, trail apps represented the majority of potentially impacted revenue at 78%, and accounted for 40% of downloads from sherlocked apps. In May 2024 alone, they contributed an estimated $28.8 million in consumer spending and 2.5 million downloads.

Many of these app categories exhibited rapid growth, with math aids leading at a 43% year-over-year revenue increase, followed by grammar helpers (+40%), password managers (+38%), and trail apps (+28%). Conversely, emoji makers saw a decline of -17% year-over-year.

Image Credits: Appfigures

By downloads, grammar helpers recorded 9.4 million installations over the past year, followed by emoji makers (10.6 million), math aids (9.5 million), and password managers (457,000).

Image Credits: Appfigures

While established user bases may initially remain loyal to third-party apps, Apple’s integrated solutions could deter potential growth by satisfying casual users with “good enough” alternatives. However, apps that innovate with new features and leverage enhancements like Apple’s improved Siri integration may still find opportunities for differentiation and user engagement.

Sarah Perez
Sarah Perez
Staff writer. Previously, Sarah worked for over three years at ReadWriteWeb, a technology news publication. Before working as a reporter, Perez worked in I.T. across a number of industries, including banking, retail and software.

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