Is Apple really that original?

Apple boss Tim Cook may say that the fight with Samsung is about 'values' but this battle has nothing to do with originality and innovation.

Apple’s CEO Tim Cook sent out a memo to Apple employees last week commenting on the outcome of the trial against Samsung. In it, he said:

“For us this lawsuit has always been about something much more important than patents or money. It’s about values. We value originality and innovation and pour our lives into making the best products on earth.”

This starkly contrasted former Apple CEO Steve Jobs who said in 1994 “we have always been shameless about stealing great ideas”.

Of the two statements, Steve Jobs’ is the more honest. The idea that any innnovation is created in a vacuum is clearly not tenable. This theme is explored in some depth in a series of videos by Kirby Ferguson who proposed that “Everything is a Remix”. In the videos, Ferguson highlights how artists, directors and computer companies have copied ideas, transformed and combined them to produce something new. The central example is how Apple’s Lisa and Macintosh computers were modeled on Xerox’s Alto and Star 8010 computers. Xerox’s computers were the first computers to feature a graphical user interface with windows and used a mouse for navigation. Apple succeeded in transforming Xerox’s basic interface into something usable and relatively affordable. Microsoft in turn copied this technology and approach and the PC era was well and truly born.

As a software or hardware designer, it is impossible not to be influenced by the products you use and see every day. In fact, part of the design process is to look at the competition and to make sure that you cover off features of their product in yours. This is a fundamental way both consumers and reviewers make decisions on what products to buy or recommend. Take office productivity software for example. Microsoft’s Office suite has all of the same functional features that you will find in any other office suite, including Apple’s. Different email and appointment software in particular do the same things using the same visual metaphors, terms and functions.

Henry Ford claimed that “progress happens when all the factors that make for it are ready, and then it is inevitable”. So it is with developers and designers. Particular design decisions lead to inevitable consequences. Given a particular set of constraints, different developers and designers will end up with the same solutions, including, as in Apple’s patents, the lining up of icons in rows or the use of fingers to pinch and tap. 

The other irony here is that within the iPhone and iPad App environment, Apple actually mandates that applications should all conform to a particular style. This constrains applications to essentially be very similar to each other in look and function. For the user, this is of obvious benefit. Once you have learned how to do something in one way, you can then reapply this to all of the other applications you use. Even when a new design feature is introduced, it rapidly appears in other applications. The Facebook application on the iPhone for example, introduced a sliding side menu feature that was quickly copied in other applications.

The other feature of both the Android and Apple iOS operating systems is that they are based on Unix, Linux and the contributions of thousands of developers. Many of these people gave their contributions for free, choosing to open source their code. So clearly not everything about the iPhone or iPad is completely original and totally built from the ground up in Cupertino.

The fact that companies are happy to appropriate other people’s ideas, but fight to the death in court when someone borrows theirs, is known in psychological terms as a cognitive bias. In this particular case, the cognitive bias is loss aversion. We are naturally programmed to associate more value with something that we have to give up than the value we associate with it to gain it.

The battle between the phone manufacturers and Google will inevitably drag on. There are obviously huge amounts of money at stake and that would be motive alone. Tactically, companies will find ways around the patents or come to licensing deals. But let’s be clear, this is not about fighting for originality and innovation.

David Glance is a Director at the Centre for Software Practice at The University of Western Australia