Posted by David Price 08 August 2014
In the technology industry, everybody steals. And that's a good thing
A few years back, I was asked to appear (extremely briefly) on a Channel 5 news programme and talk about Apple's patent dispute with Samsung. The case seemed even then to have been going on for longer than Jarndyce v Jarndyce, and patience was running short; it was felt by most observers that Judge Koh should knock the executives' heads together and tell them to stop wasting the court's time.
Having never 'done TV' before, I was unprepared for a classic presenters' trick: rehearsing the interview beforehand as a means to appropriate my carefully prepared remarks and use them as part of the filmed questions. (Keep your powder dry during rehearsals if you don't want to look like a mug - there's a bit of free advice for prospective TV interviewees.) But more than this, I remember being thrown by the suggestion that Apple v Samsung "is just a playground argument, isn't it?" We were talking about products that bring in billions upon billions in high-margin revenue. How much more serious could it get?
The more I think about patent litigation, however, the more I wonder if the presenter was right after all - and as an Apple fan, the more relieved I am that Tim Cook's attitude to the courts is so much more hands-off than his predecessor's. Defending your intellectual property is one thing, but most of the major showdowns in the great mobile patent wars, once you forget about the number of noughts on the claims for damages, have been just as 'he started it' petty as the average primary school dispute.
Because, when it comes down to it, all tech companies - indeed, all inventors - steal each other's ideas in some sense of the word. It's unavoidable. And it's a good thing. It's how the transport industry went from horse-drawn carriages to space shuttles within a lifetime. You couldn't double the number of transistors on a chip every 24 months if somebody had a patent on the transistor, and charged everyone else a licensing fee.
iOS and Android: Who stole from who?
Steve Jobs once claimed - in characteristically melodramatic tones - that Android was a "stolen product", arguing that Google boss Eric Schmidt had used his time on the Apple board to gain an unfair advantage when launching Android a short while after the iPhone. (I would take this with a grain of salt, although it's probably fair to say that Android was at the very least inspired by the iPhone, and that in the iPhone's absence it would have looked a bit more BlackBerry-esque.)
And yet, all these years later, it's Apple that is most often accused of technological larceny, with observers pointing out that the widgets, system-wide customisation options, whole-word predictive typing, app preview videos and other 'new' features in iOS 8 - even down to the "Hey Siri!" hotword voice activation - had appeared in some form in earlier editions of Android.
In the end, the truth is that each one of these great software platforms is utterly indebted to the other: that inspiration is a two-way street, and a vital part of the process of innovation. In 1979 Apple strolled into Xerox's research facilities and absorbed lessons that would manifest themselves in the Lisa graphical user interface; Microsoft took those ideas and carried them forward into Windows (at which point Apple did what it has since become famous for doing: rang up the lawyers). But the synthesis of those ideas, and the healthy competition between operating systems in the years that followed, forced each company to be more innovative, not less.
iOS and Android couldn't possibly exist in their present incarnations without the other to spur them on, criticise and compete with them, and frequently inspire them. And while it's entirely reasonable to defend the specific implementation of a concept, the ideas themselves need to be open to all, for the good of the industry.