November 25, 2020

The Product / Feature Line

On Sherlock resistant software

by @maguay

Writer. Amateur photographer. Information architect. Frm. founding editor @racket and @capiche, senior writer @zapier, Mac and Web editor @AppStorm. Personal blog: @techinch.
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“It’s a feature, not a product,” said Steve Jobs of Dropbox, after approaching founder Drew Houston about acquiring the file sync software.

Everything could be a feature, to Jobs. Cameras, alarm clocks, calculators—all features in the iPhone. Even Apple’s other products weren’t immune. The iPod was a $9 billion business in 2008, before the Music app on iPhone and Apple Watch replaced it. Specialized devices gave way to a blank glass slate that could be turned into anything with software.

Thus the fears of Sherlocking, of Apple turning your product into yet another built-in feature. Dropbox, meet iCloud. Wacom, the iPad. Swype might want a word with the iOS keyboard (and Google’s Gboard, for that matter). Skype saw the entire tech industry take them on, making their video calls just another feature in everything from FaceTime to Slack.

And then the cycle restarts, and Zoom makes video chat just enough better to build a billion-dollar market cap, while every tech giant offers a competing free video chat app.

I think I’ve seen this thing before.

Spellcheck in Grammarly and Apple Pages

Take spellcheck as an example.

First came SPELL, a dedicated bit of software to correct spelling on mainframe computers in the 1970’s. Then came personal computers, and software like WordCheck to check your spelling for $200 in the early 1980’s (over $570 in today’s dollars). Then came word processors like WordPerfect and Microsoft Word, bundling spellcheck along with dozens of other features into one program. Apple took it further, building spellcheck into macOS so every program could check spelling for free.

Then Grammarly in 2009 went back to the basics, made spellcheck a product again that can charge $12/month to double-check your writing. A decade later, Microsoft followed suit, building Microsoft Editor as a standalone spelling and grammar tool—one it bundled with its Microsoft 365 suite. And history repeats itself again.

Product Features or Features as Products.

“Profitable product strategies are built around giving customers the exact mix of attributes they want but no more,” wrote Harvard Business Review’s Ian MacMillan and Rita Gunther McGrath in 1996. “Companies that underinvest in attributes that customers value will lose customers; companies that overinvest in attributes that customers don’t value will lose money.”

That’s the logic behind the fabled MVP, a minimum viable product with “just those features … to ship a product that resonates with early adopters; some of whom will pay you money or give you feedback,” as Lean Startup author Eric Ries described.

The focus, then, is on product features, the core features that make what you’ve built stand out, “discrete areas of new and upgraded functionality that deliver value to your customers,” according to the Aha team. “Features represent outputs,” said the Productboard team; they’re things that help “realize a specific outcome.”

That’s photo editing for Photoshop, document layout for Word, team chat for Slack, email for Gmail. Those products each do far more than their product feature—but you buy the software, download the app for their product features. Everything else is extra (but there are so many extras, you’ll only need one tool for a whole workflow, or so it seems).

Today’s best software, positional software, often takes the other route, building out their product feature to be the very best it can be, and leaving everything else to integrations, add-ons, and complimentary software. It’s the UNIX philosophy, in today’s fancier UIs. Each product doesn’t need to do everything, it only has to do one thing great.

And at first, that’s enough. At a certain level, every piece of software is just a feature, something that couldn’t run without the underlying silicon, operating system, web stack, and more. A good enough feature can win the day.

What surprises and delights customers today, though, might be commonplace tomorrow. Your new smartphone won’t win any awards with a 4G network or a retina display today, even if those were cutting-edge features a decade ago. Neither would basic spellcheck sell for $200 when every app includes it already.

“Products who launch on platforms aren’t wrong to fear the platform,” wrote Abe Winter. They’re in a continuous race to ship better features, features that can still stand alone even the platform clones their core functionality.

How to not get Sherlocked.

Dropbox in macOS Finder

So what makes a feature enough to be a product, something that can stand alone as software people will buy even when it’s just a built-in feature in other larger platforms? What makes a feature into a product that can hold its own?

1. Build the best possible version of that feature, for experts.

It starts with focus. Dropbox syncs files. Superhuman speeds up email. One task, done very well.

Platform owners like Apple and Microsoft can build a basic version of everything into their platforms and software suites. The built-in calculator on macOS and Windows is plenty to add 3+5; TextEdit or Notepad are both fine to type several lines of text.

Focused takes on those features, though, can be far better. PCalc adds RPN mode and customizable shortcuts to the basic calculator. Sublime Text and Visual Studio Code can search through far larger text files than you’d ever open in Notepad.

If a feature is the core thing a product offers, it’d better be the best possible version of that feature.

Cameras are a tough market after smartphones put a camera in everyone’s pocket. But you can never get the same focus on the shooting experience and raw photo quality from cameras-as-a-feature in a phone. So Sony and Canon focus on the highest quality images, Fujifilm and Leica on the traditional photographer shooting experience, and can continue to carve out a profitable niche that serves the most demanding photographers.

2. Cover a specific part of a workflow.

Products fit into specific steps of a workflow. Features help those steps along.

If a feature-as-a-product is to survive, it needs to own one specific stage of a workflow. People won’t want to switch programs mid-task, but they’re likely willing to switch software when switching tasks or moving to the next phase of a project.

ImageOptim, for example, does one thing: It optimizes photos, shrinking their file size as much as possible without compromising image quality. You’ll edit a photo in Photoshop, say, save it, then run it through ImageOptim before uploading it to your website. ImageOptim fits at the end of the photo processing workflow, right when you’re changing focus from editing to publishing the photo.

That’s the perfect spot for a tiny, focused tool, where perhaps a standalone image cropping tool wouldn’t be as useful since you’d need to switch from Photoshop to the cropping tool back to Photoshop again. You’d be far more likely to use the built-in tool instead.

iA Writer founder Oliver Reichenstein mentioned something similar in a recent conversation, where he talked about the benefit of Markdown letting you copy text from one app to another, and how that enables workflows of writing one place, editing another, and published somewhere else. iA Writer includes a WordPress and Ghost integration, but few use it, preferring to switch apps entirely when switching workflow stages.

3. Provide enough extra value that it’s worth adding a step.

If a product’s to own a stage of the workflow, it needs to be worth the switching costs of moving to another app every time you do that step.

Grammarly doesn’t need tools for focused writing, or tools for publishing. It’s built for the editing stage—and here, it needs everything one would want to find grammar and spelling mistakes and polish the text. And it needs to provide enough extra value that you’d want to copy text from your writing app, paste it into Grammarly to edit, then copy the finished text into its final destination.

Dropbox was that, especially when it first came out. Syncing files was hard; sending files to others often meant attaching them to an email or copying them to a flash drive. So when Dropbox asked you to add an extra step to your workflow and save new files in the Dropbox folder, it was worth the extra clicks.

4. Focus where the competition won’t.

The jury’s still out on Dropbox; its stock is near all-time lows. “To do what we all want it to do, syncing has to be baked in to all the gadgets we use today,” wrote Farhad Manjoo in 2012, several months after Apple launched iCloud. That continues to be the bear case for Dropbox, as Windows, Android, and Apple’s platforms alike come with built-in cloud sync that works everywhere, no extra Dropbox folder step required.

But Dropbox has a leg up on the competition, versus iCloud at least: It works everywhere. It might not be as tightly integrated into an OS as iCloud, may not have collaborative web apps like Google Drive and OneDrive. What it has instead is that it works on every platform equally well.

Dropbox’ combination of best-in-class file sync features and a broad focus on every platform give it a fighting chance. “Cross-platform networks in particular are tricky to sherlock and a good defense,” wrote Abe Winter, where he called Dropbox the “Anti-Sherlock.”

Platforms can be a great differentiator, as can integrations (where Docusign can sell signatures-as-a-feature, and rely on integrations to push those signatures where they’re needed), file compatibility (how a player like VLC or an export tool like Marked can stand out), and more. Features-as-products need all the help they can get, and a broader or more narrow focus than the competition can make the difference between getting Sherlocked or not.

A better mousetrap.

Sherlocking isn’t quite as straightforward as the headlines seem, though. First there was Sherlock, a built-in search tool on Macs. Then came Watson, a web search tool that its dev team said was “openly inspired by Sherlock.” Then came a new version of Sherlock that included its own web search along with native Mac search, limiting Watson’s market appeal. And so it goes, the wheels of innovation turning today’s product into another feature in a new product.

Until innovation goes backward, unbundling to sell better individual features rather than the mix.

There’s always space for better standalone tools, for software that’s laser-focused on solving one specific problem. Zoom proved that, as did Grammarly, as do every single-purpose tool that survives in the market.

Then the platforms and bundles catch up, and it’s the focused tools’ chance to innovate again.

And that’s how software evolves.

Image Credit: Header photo by Drew Beamer via Unsplash.

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