What Does It Mean When Apple “Sherlocks” an App?

Perhaps you’ve read that F.lux, which reduces eye strain and helps you sleep, is being “Sherlocked” later this month. What does that mean?

In short, “Sherlocked” means that macOS will soon offer features that make installing the popular third-party tool F.lux unnecessary. When macOS 10.11.4—the latest update for Sierra—comes out, the “Displays” panel in System Preferences will offer the Night Shift feature that debuted on iPhones last year. For lifelong Apple fans, this term barely needs explanation, but recent converts might feel confused. So, let’s take a look at where the term “Sherlocked” comes from.

Where Does the Term “Sherlocked” Come From?

Before Spotlight—Apple’s built-in search feature—there was a different built-in search feature named Sherlock, after the fictional detective. Sherlock was part of Mac OS 8 and 9, and allowed users to search for files and contacts. When Mac OS X came around, Sherlock was extended to incorporate some basic web functionality—including translation.

The idea of offering information from the Internet in a native Mac search interface intrigued developer Dan Wood, who founded a company called Karelia and built a tool named Watson. This $30 application was intended to be a companion to Sherlock (get it?) and supported way more internet functionality than Sherlock. Users of Watson could browse Yahoo’s famous directory with expandable menus, look up movie schedules, calculate  exchange rates, and a lot more.

Watson became very popular, and stayed that way right until Apple released Mac OS X 10.2 with Sherlock 3. In that release, Apple added just about everything Watson could do to Sherlock’s own interface.

After incorporating all these features, people no longer had much reason to buy Watson. Sherlock could do it all. A narrative took hold, and in the future “Sherlocked” became a word used any time Apple put out a new feature that made a third-party app no longer relevant.

In a blog post, Wood said Steve Jobs told him Apple can and will do this to developers on the platform. Here’s Wood paraphrasing a phone call from Jobs himself:

“You know those handcars, the little machines that people stand on and pump to move along on the train tracks? That’s Karelia. Apple is the steam train that owns the tracks.”

You could argue that the popular narrative here isn’t completely accurate. Apple blogger John Gruber stated that Sherlock’s web integrations were planned at Apple before Watson debuted, and that Apple offered Wood a job working on Sherlock two different times. But these facts couldn’t stand in the way of a good story, and the term “Sherlocked” stuck.

Does “Sherlocking” Happen a Lot?

The term “Sherlocked” stuck around because it’s useful: there isn’t really another word to describe an app being replaced by an OS feature. And every few years Apple really does add features replacing projects put out by third parties, including such favorites as:

  • Konfabulator. An app that offered interactive desktop widgets, Konfabulator was made irrelevant by Apple’s Dashboard.
  • iPodderX. An early podcast manager for Mac OS X, iPodderX was made irrelevant by podcast support in iTunes.
  • Sandvox. An application for building websites in a native Mac environment, Sandvox lost a lot of momentum when Apple released iWeb. Coincidentally, Sandvox is from Karelia—the developers behind Watson—so they’ve been Sherlocked twice.
  • Growl. An open source notification system for Mac OS X used by hundreds of Mac apps, Growl was made irrelevant by Apple’s native notification system.

We’re sure readers can think of other examples. F.lux is just the latest victim. And Mac users will continue seeing the term “Sherlocked” thrown around whenever Apple adds new features to the operating system previously offered by third party applications.

You could also argue that Microsoft was Sherlocking before Apple made it cool, killing off Netscape Navigator with a little app called Internet Explorer. At this point, the word “Sherlocked” hasn’t really crossed over into Windows-land. But who knows what the future holds?

Photo credit: Christian Reimer

Justin Pot is a technology writer and enthusiast who lives in Portland, Oregon. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook, if you want. You don't have to.

  • Published 03/14/17
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