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Apple scruffs – The Free Software Column

by Richard Hillesley

Android phones are no more a ‘rip-off’ of the iPhone than the iPhone is a rip-off of earlier mobile phones and technology, argues Richard Hillesley…

Igor stravinsky once said that “a good composer does not imitate; he steals”, and ts eliot once said “immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.” even the idea that good art embraces the work of other good artists is not unique or original.

Good art is often a synthesis of thoughts and methodologies that have been poached and recycled from other sources. Very little is entirely new or original, and this understanding is equally true of other aspects of our lives. Ideas are cumulative and depend upon the evolution of techniques, observation and criticism, so it isn’t entirely surprising that inventions and discoveries are often made simultaneously by different people in different locations. It is still a matter of argument, for instance, whether the electric light bulb was invented by Joseph Swan or Thomas Edison, or the telephone by Elisha Gray or Alexander Graham Bell…

The style and design of the prevailing art and everyday items of our lives reflect the zeitgeist and are a refinement and an assimilation of the judgement of their times. Everybody copies everybody else, and style is not a patentable idea. So the cars of any era, however different they might have seemed in their time, look like other cars of that era – and the same can be said of, say, furniture, graffiti, clothes, hairstyles and mobile computer devices. A mobile phone is based on any number of software and hardware technologies developed by individuals and firms such as Nokia, Samsung and Motorola over a period of 30 years, but a modern phone looks very different to one of 30 years ago.

A mobile phone has some basic requirements. It has to be portable and fit in your pocket, preferably with smooth edges so that it doesn’t catch on the threads of your jacket or shirt. It has to be able to scan the web and talk to other phones. Sometimes we expect a little bit more, but the basic technology and appearance, albeit refined and improved, remains the same, and owes everything to 30 years of research and development by any number of companies and individuals who wormed away at the idea of touch screens and mobile communications, sometimes making breakthroughs and sometimes encountering failure.

The commercial breakthrough of the smartphone is dated to the launch of the iPhone in 2006, but the ideas and technology it embraced did not slip, clean and new, out of Apple’s ownership of one particular part of the ether. Apple was not alone in recognising that the mobile phone had a significant future, but had the advantage of being an outsider to the business, able to take a dispassionate view of the possibilities. Apple synthesised the best aspects of existing mobile phone technologies and smartphones, and added the marketing potential of the idea behind iTunes to make an iPhone out of an iPod – a phone that doubled as an iPod and a web device, and gave access to the Apple store. Marketing and the inertia of the competition did the rest.

The iPhone was the best mobile phone of its time, used the best hardware, and relied on clean design and usability principles. Apple made all the right decisions, sidestepped the competition and still holds a significant share of the market – but very few of the constituent parts of the iPhone were really unique or original. Competitors adopted Android, which had been under development since 2003, offered all the advantages of the iPhone and cost significantly less.

The justification for Apple’s subsequent righteous war against the Androids is the tendentious claim that Android is a ‘rip-off’ of the iPhone and “a stolen product”. The primary contention is that Samsung and Android have ripped off Apple’s style and look and feel, but Android is no more stolen from the iPhone than the iPhone is a ‘rip-off’ of the pioneering work of the likes of Motorola, Nokia and Samsung itself.

The instrument for Apple’s war has been the acquiescence of the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) and the US courts, ownership of scores of debatable utility and design patents, and its claims against Samsung and others of ‘trade dress infringement’. The good news in recent months is that some of these entitlements, such as Apple’s patent entitled ‘Touch screen device, method, and graphical user interface for determining commands by applying heuristics’ and ‘the rubber band patent’ have come up for review and been found wanting by the USPTO. The bad news is that Apple still has a vast portfolio of debatable patents to draw upon.

Patents are not a defence of the rights of the innovator, but a weapon against competition and invention and the rights of the user. Android is no more a ‘rip-off’ or ‘stolen product’ than the iPhone itself, or the music of Stravinsky or poetry of Eliot.

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    • ViewRoyal

      Richard Hillesley also argues that the world is flat, and that the sun and galaxies revolve around the earth. ;-)

    • Mike Arslan

      Patents killed the innovation and made lawyers richer.

    • Aldi

      Your statement “The iPhone was the best mobile phone of its time” is not entirely true. The first incarnation was badly lacking many technological aspects of smartphones (Symbian, RIM OS) of that time: No UMTS, no multitasking, no tethering, no SD-card (still like that), no business-able PIM tools,…

      Apple’s merits go to be among the first companies embracing capacitive screens and multitouch as well as a strong focus on usability. This made the iphone “cool”, not so much the technological aspects.

    • Grigor

      What made IPhone, IPad etc. “cool” is the same that made the VHS video casette format more successful than Betamax. Advertising, corporate games with the distributors and fanboism. Since when prisons are cool, even if digital?

      If someone believes Apple invented the smartphone, take a look at Nokia Communicator 9000. The phone-worthy capacity screens weren’t technologically available at this time, but everything else is there. That’s 1996. It’s (still) not that easy to rewrite the history to appear the inventor.

    • Achim

      Neither Bell nor Gray invented the Telephone. The invention was done 15 years before Bells Patent by Johann Philipp Reis. He even coined the term “Telephon”. Another example of everybody copying everybody else…

    • Pingback: Apple Sues Linux/Android Over Text Selection | Techrights()

    • immovableobject

      Apple didn’t invent the smart phone (or the personal computer, portable music player and tablet), but isn’t it odd how their iconic designs have now come to define these products? Everything Apple does seem obvious in hindsight.

      The iPhone was radically different from the popular (at the time) Blackberry. And it was ridiculed as a folly. What, no real keyboard?

      Android was originally intended to be a Blackberry clone. But once it became apparent that Apple had completely eclipsed RIM and had in fact defined the future direction of smart phones, Google changed course.

      The iPhone, as you point out, did incorporate ideas and technologies from a number of sources but, it was significantly different from of any existing phone. Android, on the other hand, was deliberately designed to be very much like an iPhone. So yes, it is more of a rip-off of the iPhone than the iPhone was of earlier phones.

      Its always amusing to see critics accuse Apple of not actually inventing anything. If it weren’t for Apple driving innovation, we’d all be poorer for it.

    • Marshal adley

      Sure, the iPhone looked different from the Blackberry, which was its most popular predecessor ‘phone. But it does bear a lot of similarity to the PDA’s of its day.

      At the time, those interested in PDA’s had been discussing in forums the idea of putting a phone chip in a PDA (Wouldn’t that be cool!!?). This is the approach Apple took – it modified its successful PDA (iPod) into its iPhone design, adding a phone chip. Apple had similarly synthesized the iPod from existing PDA design and the increasingly popular music players.

      So no, there wasn’t the Blackberry defining the smartphone and the iPhone re-inventing it. There was instead several years of PDA evolution leading up to the iPhone. The argument that Android ripped off the iPhone because it didn’t look like a Blackberry is simplistic and mistaken. The Android UI looks a lot like the PDA UI’s which preceded smart phone popularity, as does the Apple UI.

      I like the idea that Apple is a synthesis company – they look at cutting edge devices and apply emerging technologies – along with a healthy dolop of graphical design sense and a huge marketing budget – to come up with market leading devices that help define the future evolution of the market segment they enter. That’s pretty cool as it is. They don’t need their faithful to exalt them into the position of definers of new product segments and the originators of everything cool.

      When Jobs declared nuclear war on Android, he was exercising the advancing paranoia that guided much of his final years. He admitted that he stole other ideas for his products but reviled Android for doing the same – even though any rational observer who followed evolving tech could see that it wasn’t theft at all, merely parallel evolution.

    • immovableobject

      Marshal, Android was originally intended to support a blackberry-like phone with small screen and tactile keyboard, not a keyboard-less PDA-like device, and certainly not a multi-touch device. This is a matter of fact. The original drawings have been published. Google, after seeing the iPhone, completely changed course. After all, they had a mole on Apple’s board of directors.

      Sure there were large screen PDA’s, but they were all stylus-based. The iPhone was in fact criticized for NOT using a stylus. Today, how many Android phones can you name that use a stylus?

      You can argue that Apple’s influences were there for anybody to use, and perhaps had it not been the iPhone, some other company would have eventually produced a similar form factor phone. But the iPhone OS also offered a radical improvement in usability compared to existing phones and PDA’s of the day. People seem to forget just how different it was. Just as MS Windows copied the Mac (after Apple took the risks and demonstrated with the Mac that a GUI was viable and not just a lab curiosity), Android was modeled after the iPhone’s OS which has became the blueprint for smart phones going forward.

      The pattern is typical. Apple releases something boldly different from the status quo. Competitors and their fans initially criticize it for being different. Consumers actually use it and validate it. Competitors inevitably and blatantly treat Apple’s designs as a spec for their upcoming products, and then claim (in hindsight) that all of Apple’s design decisions were obvious.

    • Nobody ever has an original idea. the people who have the original ideas will not get any credit for them. Take a look at Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. These men worked together to develop the first “user friendly” os. They went their seperate ways to form Apple and Microsoft. J. Presper Eckert and John Mauculy are credited with the first build of an computer. So everyone steals of everyone.. but id dosent matter. you really need to apreciate the technology that is here…. everyone has made their money and everyone is happy… it does not matter what company is better? who stole from who. It’s just companies surviving in the technological world. (sorry for my english)

    • immovableobject

      HecTlic, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates did not “work together” to develop the first user friendly OS. Bill’s involvement with Apple started with Microsoft supplying floating point BASIC for the Apple II ROM. No GUI there. The Lisa was Apple’s first GUI computer, and was inspired by a demonstration witnessed at Xerox PARC (and without the benefit of any of Xerox’s code). More to the point, Bill Gates had nothing to do with its development. At the time, Microsoft was busy licensing it’s command line MSDOS to IBM PC clone makers, and doing quite well.

      The Lisa flopped for a number of reasons including its $10,000 price tag. Apple’s next GUI computer was the Mac which was one quarter the cost and better in almost every way. Bill Gates had nothing to do with its development either. Microsoft was however given pre-release access to the Mac OS API’s so that they could write some of the first 3rd party apps for it (a version of BASIC and a spreadsheet called Multiplan. I owned them both and they were atrocious).

      Bill Gates quickly realized that GUI’s were the future, and as Steve jobs had no interest in licensing the Mac OS to other computer makers, saw an opportunity and set about creating a Microsoft GUI OS eventually to be known as MS Windows. Instead of doing anything radically different than the Mac OS, they chose to copy its proven look and feel with only a few minor changes. Even with the Mac API’s to analyze and reverse engineer, it took Microsoft years to get Windows working well enough to approach the usability of the Mac.

      You ask if it matters who is better or who stole for whom? Maybe not. But it bugs me to see revisionist history propagating as fact. Apple has always been at the forefront of consumer technology.