The Rotten Apple Part 1: Copycats Who Don’t Want to Be Copied

Apple’s Blatant Hypocrisy
Apple’s “thermonuclear war” against Android is less about protecting its “innovations” in the smartphone market than it is about protecting its market dominance. Consider what Steve Jobs himself said in the 1990s: “Picasso had a saying, he said: ‘Good artists copy, great artists steal’. We have, you know, always, ah, been shameless about stealing great ideas.” Apple has a long history of copying the innovations of others, while at the same time they are bullying others who do the same. Why, then, does Apple do its utmost to prevent others from copying technologies Apple itself copied from others?

[Breaking News 6/11/2012, 2:30 PM] Apple Copies Google Features for iOS 6

In its latest examples of blatant copying, Apple has copied Google Voice Actions and incorporated the functionality into Siri, which can now launch apps. Apple has also copied Chrome’s tab sync feature and incorporated the functionality into iCloud Tabs. As yet another example, Apple has copied Google Voice’s Do Not Disturb functionality along with Android’s “Reply With Message” feature and called it… wait for it… Do Not Disturb (though Apple has also applied it to notifications – oh, wait, didn’t Apple also copy Android’s notification bar?). In a stunning twist of irony (karma?), Apple’s stock took a nosedive after its WWDC conference.

A History of Copying From Others
Throughout Apple’s history, they’ve rarely been the first ones out of the gate with any completely original invention, but, as Joe Wilcox at Betanews pointed out, they have consistently re-combined existing technologies to form their innovations. I should point out that Wilcox’s own editorial was one of the main inspirations for my series (but you better not copy anything from mine ;)).

Wilcox was quoting from a highly recommended book by distinguished Ohio State professor Oded Shenkar called Copycats: How Smart Companies use Imitation to Gain a Strategic Edge. For example, Apple got the concept of the GUI from the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), which produced the GUI for its Alto machine in 1973 (which was first incorporated into a commercial personal workstation called the Star in 1981).


1: Xerox Alto, 2: Xerox Compound Document screenshot, 3: Xerox Star, 4: Xerox Star GUI screenshot

Apple was also not the first company to release an mp3 player, a smartphone, a tablet, or an app store. The Diamond Rio, released in 1998, was the first commercially successful mp3 player, though not the first one overall. IBM developed the Simon, the first device to be considered a “smartphone” in 1992, which was followed by more popular offerings from Nokia (Symbian), RIM (Blackberry), Palm (Palm OS) and Microsoft (Windows Mobile). Microsoft tablets go as far back as 2002, 8 years before the first iPad, and one of the first “one-click” digital distribution systems (which functions as an app store) for Linux programs was called “Click-N-Run,” or CNR, released in 2002.


Early smartphones 1: IBM Simon, 2: Nokia Communicator 9110, 3: BlackBerry 6230, 4: Palm Treo, 5: T-Mobile Dash (Windows Mobile)


1: Diamond Rio mp3 player, 2: Microsoft Tablet PC, 3: Click-N-Run (CNR) app store predecessor screenshot

Litigation over innovation
This saying has already become a cliche’, but it is just as true now as it was when Apple began its litigation binge. The iPhone was a true game-changing innovation in 2007, when it revolutionized the smartphone industry. With the original iPhone, Apple also set a prime example of how to impose a manufacturer’s will over that of the notoriously control-obsessed carriers. Apple followed up its impressive debut with the second-generation iPhone 3G, which introduced another revolution in the form of the app store.

From there, however, the iPhone went downhill in terms of innovation, though certainly not in market share. The combination of declining technological advancement and skyrocketing market share either led to or was the result of a corporate strategy as old as corporations themselves. Historically, when a company/corporation gains a dominant market share in a given industry, it shifts its strategy from improving its products to protecting its market position.

Microsoft’s Internet Explorer is a prime example of this approach. By crushing Netscape (the primary innovater in web browsing) by bundling Internet Explorer with each release of Windows, Microsoft came to dominate web browsing in the late 1990s. Thereafter, the browser itself went through incremental updates while rivals such as Opera and Firefox made huge advances in web browser functionality, such as tabbed browsing (which took years for Microsoft to finally integrate into Internet Explorer).

Apple’s approach following the iPhone 3G was very similar to Microsoft’s Internet Explorer strategy, with one key difference. Like Microsoft, Apple began releasing incremental upgrades to its iPhone once it gained a stranglehold in the smartphone market in 2008/2009. Just think of the iPhone 3GS and the 4S, and you’ve gotten the point.

Android was a bit player in the smartphone arena when it first went to market with the venerable HTC Dream (more commonly known as the T-Mobile G1) in 2008, but even then, Steve Jobs recognized that Android presented a major threat to the iPhone’s continued dominance.

His worst fears began to come to fruition with the late-2009 release of the Motorola Droid (the same year as the iPhone’s first incremental upgrade in the 3GS). The rapid-succession releases of the Nexus One, the Droid Incredible, and the Droid X quickly took Android to unprecedented heights by the summer of 2010. As if that wasn’t already a big enough threat to Apple, HTC and Samsung then hammered the market with their one-two punch of the Evo 4G and the Galaxy S during that climactic summer.

The summer of 2010 was evidently the last straw for Steve Jobs and Apple – in typical market-leader strategy, Apple went from revolutionizing smartphone technology to playing defense to protect (and restore) the status quo. Consequently, Steve Jobs declared a “thermonuclear war” on Android, launching an aggressive barrage of anticompetitive lawsuits in 2010, designed to exploit the recent shortcomings of the modern patent system. Microsoft, by contrast, was much more often the defendant in litigation based on its anticompetitive approach to Internet Explorer (I can’t help but laugh at the sheer irony of this contrast).

Interestingly, Apple hasn’t sued Google itself over Android, as I imagine it would be difficult to win a patent lawsuit against an open-source operating system based on the same Unix ecosystem as MacOS and iOS (Linux, upon which Android is based, is itself derived from Unix). Instead, Apple has chosen to attack Android by proxy, suing individual manufacturers for copying key patent-protected features of iOS.

It’s certainly a head-scratcher that nobody in the court system seems to recognize that the key features Apple is suing manufacturers for are part of Android itself and are implemented across all Android devices. For example, the infamous “data-tapping” feature is a part of stock Android and is not particular to any OEM, Samsung and HTC included. The fact that it’s implemented in their respective TouchWiz and Sense skins is irrelevant, because the phone would have had that feature even without those custom overlays.

Why does Apple get away with this obvious hypocrisy?
While Apple itself copies and recombines technologies from others, Apple refuses to let others do the same without rushing to the courthouse to stop competing products from launching via injunctions and restraining orders. Why does Apple get away with this? Stay tuned for the next editorial in this series, which focuses on patent law in the United States, its original intent, and the perverted way it is implemented today.]]>

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