apple-octopus-app-monsterApple has brought some of the most exciting communication trends this side of the original telephone to the newest version of its mobile operating system to offer consumers access to the latest-and-greatest tools without having to download an application or join a new service. That is welcome news for consumers, but it’s unlikely to receive the same reception from Facebook, Snapchat, and the other companies that raised obscene amounts of capital to create the tools that Apple just copied and will make freely available with every new iPhone and iPad this Fall.

The company announced Monday that it will offer self-destructing images, voice messages, and location-sharing to its messaging application. That means that people will have one less reason to download Facebook, Snapchat, Viber, and any other applications with similar features. (It also means that Snapchat’s decision not to sell to Facebook for $3 billion earlier this year now seems crazier than it did before, which is quite the feat.) Apple has just shown that some of the most highly-regarded services in recent memory are really features waiting to be copied.

That’s the beauty of the App Store. It allows Apple to see what consumers expect from their software and, if a market seems particularly interesting, create something that rivals those dedicated applications and is built directly into the operating system on which they rely. It’s not easy to create an entire platform, so Apple focuses on the broad strokes and allows other companies to focus on the details — until they become more popular and Apple decides to devote its considerable resources to copying those features and adding them to its platform.

Apple did the same thing with Dropbox. Steve Jobs infamously told Dropbox’s co-founders that they were developing a feature instead of a product, and offered to acquire the company so Apple could build that feature into its platforms. Dropbox refused, and now Apple (along with Google and Microsoft) offers its own file synchronization service, showing the company’s willingness to do whatever is necessary to make its products more appealing to consumers. Monday’s announcement was similar, except Apple isn’t copying one company, it’s copying many.

People will still use the services Apple is copying, at least for a while. But when the latest trends revolve around the address book (which Apple controls) and sending images (which Apple has long been able to do) or sharing a location (which is only possible because of Apple’s efforts) it makes sense for Apple to introduce its own solution instead of leaving the glory to the companies that took a risk on those tools and helped make them popular with consumers.

This means that the App Store is more than a software marketplace — it’s also a tool that allows Apple to learn more about other companies and consumers, figure out what works, and attempt to replicate that success with services that receive an almost shamefully unfair boost simply by virtue of being pre-installed on hundreds of millions of smartphones and tablets. It’s hardly fair to these other companies, but unless they want to take their chances with a mobile Web app, they have little choice but to offer a product and hope that Apple never copies it.

[illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]