It's not stealing when Apple does it, because it wasn't stealing when Google did it either

This article may contain personal views and opinion from the author.
It's not stealing when Apple does it, because it wasn't stealing when Google did it either
Every time there are new features announced for iOS, there is an uproar around the web about Apple "stealing" features. I have talked before about why I think this is a silly argument, but I wanted to put up a refresher on the idea, because the claims simply won't die out. Here's the simple reason: it's not stealing when Apple does it, because it wasn't stealing when Google did it either.

The elephant

First, I have to address the elephant that is always in the room when talking about Apple: lawsuits. Look, no one likes a company that is overly litigious, and Apple certainly fits that bill. Or, at least Apple did fit that bill in the past. I know that Apple is still locked in litigation with a number of different companies, including Samsung and Motorola; but, I feel it's important to note that all of those lawsuits began while Steve Jobs was still CEO

New CEO Tim Cook has expressed his distaste for lawsuits, and aside from the battles that started before his time, I can't find evidence of a lawsuit that has been filed by Apple since he took over the company two years ago. There have been the endless loop of countersuits with Samsung, but at this point that mess is just as much Samsung's fault as Apple's.

Obviously, this is a fairly short time period, but as I said when Tim Cook first took over the company, we need to put away the ideas about Apple that we had during Steve Jobs' time, and stop judging the company by Steve Jobs, because the company reflects its leader, and its leader is very different than the man who made the company famous. 

Yes, Tim Cook could likely put an end to the lawsuits in progress (assuming the companies that have countersued would also agree to ending the wars), but there are signs that Apple is changing, and we should pay attention to that. 

The accusations and the real world

First of all, I know that Apple has a dodgy past with claiming a feature is new, original, and unique to iOS when it already exists on another platform, but I didn't see it this time with the WWDC keynote. Remember, there is a difference between saying this is a "new feature" and saying this is "a unique feature to iOS". Of course what was shown off are new features, because iOS users haven't had them before, and those are the people Apple is speaking to in these announcements. And, obviously the features will be "innovative" for users, because again iOS users haven't had these features before.

In the past, maybe I've been a bit too philosophical and abstract, saying that nothing has been stolen because everything is built on ideas that came before it. I thought that was a fairly straightforward argument, but every time the argument pops up again, it seems that the ones calling out Apple for stealing don't have a memory that extends beyond Apple's direct competition. The trouble is that none of the features Apple is being accused of "stealing" were original ideas on Android or Windows Phone either. When Apple first added folders to iOS, we heard calls of "stealing from Android", but when Android added folders, did we also hear the calls of "stealing from Apple" or "stealing from that filing cabinet by my desk"?

Let's run down the list: 

  1. That multitasking UI wasn't seen first in Windows Phone 8, it goes back to webOS, and even desktops before that. 
  2. Control Center didn't start with Android 4.2, it's just a set of quick toggles that you could find on webOS or a desktop before that, and even farther back (as you can see on the right). 
  3. AirDrop/Beam/Group Play are all just variations on previous standards like DLNA for local devices, or Bluetooth sharing which goes back to feature phones. 
  4. Tabbed browsing didn't start with Google Chrome, it was available on Firefox before Chrome; and even before that, there was a browser in 1994 called "InternetWorks" that had offered a tabbed interface. 
  5. Password autofill also didn't start with Chrome, it goes back to 1Password, LastPass, and plenty of other programs before that. 
  6. Live wallpapers didn't start with Android, it first showed up in desktop Windows.
  7. The notification center didn't start with Android, but has roots in desktop systems like Growl, the Windows taskbar, and even in the analog world.

That's another thing we all need to keep in mind. Anything created on a computer screen also has roots in the real world. A notification tray makes sense because we're used to having notifications centralized, like in our mailbox outside, or the answering machine attached to a phone. Quick toggles make sense because we are so used to using remote controls. Tabs were used in binders well before browsers. Password saving used to be done in notebooks and sticky notes. Live wallpapers are called windows, because the world outside moves. Sharing makes sense because we're all human, and we like to show friends cool things, even stuff we found in the dirt while walking to school. 

Basic features and trends

These different features keep popping up in various mobile systems, not because one company is determined to copy another, but because we're starting to reach a consensus on what basic features should exist in all mobile operating systems. The original Windows back in 1985 wasn't copying Apple's OS released the year before, it just so happened that people understood the idea of folders (you know, from having them on their physical desks for years and years), and a window was the best way to represent that on a screen. 

Notification trays are the best way to organize a rush of data and keep it from being too intrusive, but still have quick access to it at all times. The best way to switch between apps is to see screenshots of each app, so you can find things easier. And, you can put pictures of the Windows Phone 8 calendar and calculator apps next to the iOS 7 versions, or even the Android versions, but that doesn't prove anything. If you really think any of these things are copying, just answer one question: how else would you propose a company design these solutions, especially the digital objects that have had standardized layouts in the analog world for generations? 

If we go beyond the features to the design aspect of things, the arguments don't get any better. The overall trend in design right now is in a type of modern minimalism, which unfortunately is going to lead to a certain amount of overlap. Users don't want to see different design just for the sake of being different. They want something that makes sense, something that is familiar, but maybe has a fresh idea or two to make certain actions easier. There's a reason why Windows has used the same basic UI for such a long time, and why so many have rebelled against the massive shift that happened with the Windows 8 UI. The same thing happened in the Linux community with the shift from GNOME 2 (a very Windows-like UI) to GNOME 3 (more minimalist, and more like MacOS really, just with more customization options and keyboard shortcuts.) 


Sure, Apple has added a number of features that look a lot like what we've seen on other mobile operating systems. But, we have to be careful about tossing around the term "stealing", because 1) that implies that these features never existed before they appeared on the other mobile operating systems, which is almost never the case; and, 2) it also implies that Apple has claimed it is the first to offer these options, which is also not true. Remember, Apple directly referred to Android Beam/S Beam in its keynote when talking about AirDrop. 

If you want to call it stealing, then you have to extend your memory and call out Google, Microsoft, BlackBerry, Palm, Canonical, and every other software maker for stealing as well, because everything we're seeing in mobile operating systems has come before both in desktop systems and in some form in the real world that exists outside of your computer.



1. tedkord

Posts: 17311; Member since: Jun 17, 2009

Watch out, Michael. Both sides are gunning for you now.

5. biophone

Posts: 1994; Member since: Jun 15, 2011

Such is the problem with being unbiased. Any rational person regardless of os prefrence isn't gunning for him though.

46. MichaelHeller

Posts: 2734; Member since: May 26, 2011

If everyone disagrees with me, I'm either doing my job really well or really poorly. I'm just aiming for the former.

74. the_best

Posts: 139; Member since: Oct 14, 2012

The problem isnt that we Think that they are stealing. The problem is that companies as apple, microsoft, google and so on keep claiming that everybody else is stealing from them even if its true or not. And when people see these obvius thefts they get angry because these big companies never get what they deserve.

78. ihatesmartphone unregistered


89. taz89

Posts: 2014; Member since: May 03, 2011

Like you I've always felt that it's not stealing and everyone b copies ideas and builds of one another.. The issue I've always had is with apples said not to judge them by Steve jobs apple but imo it looks like they still trying to run apple the Steve jobs way.. Am pretty sure they are seeing over the s3 and s4 and they were after Steve lobs death.. True apple not the only one in litigation but in most cases if anyone is suing apple it's usually just to defend themselves.. I hope your right the "new" apple will not be suing over petty things and I know it's just as much the fault of the dumbest patent system ever that these lawsuits even exist..

236. TechieXP1969

Posts: 14967; Member since: Sep 25, 2013

If you are using someone's patented tech, and they try to license it to you and refuse to buy it and you still use it anyway, that is stealing. Apple did t copy Xerox, they stole what they had. The iPod was a copy of existing tech. Not a big deal. The iPhone wasn't a big deal. The iPad certainly borrowed ideas from lots of products. But they did steal product names. That wasn't copying. That was theft!

106. Dr.Phil

Posts: 2340; Member since: Feb 14, 2011

I thought it was a good article. I don't view the features shared by iOS, Android, and WP8 as copying each other or stealing from each other, but rather I view it in the sense of which company is actually leading and which company is just a follower. If a company is just adding features that have already existed for months or years to its devices, then to me they aren't the real leaders or innovators in the mobile space. If, however, they bring something new and innovative that others then want to put onto their devices, then they are the true leader in that respect. So, the question then becomes: with the recent introduction of iOS 7, was Apple a leader or a follower? It looks like the readers have already made up their minds.

145. buccob

Posts: 2963; Member since: Jun 19, 2012

Exactly my thoughts. Thumbs up for you Dr. And there are ways to innovate without strictly following... its true you don't have to re-invent the wheel every single time, but there are other ways to add functionality while keeping aesthetics and simplicity.

149. Dorothy69

Posts: 498; Member since: May 21, 2013

I completely disagree. First and foremost: tldr!! Secondly, the tidbits I was able to quickly scan over and process with my bionic vision implied a comparison between various desktop platforms and Android (or Google Chrome) and, therefore, I am at an utter loss as to how these analogies apply specifically to two mobile operating systems, Android and iOS, respectively??

152. Dr.Phil

Posts: 2340; Member since: Feb 14, 2011

Perhaps you should read the article then and maybe you would know why he made those comparisons. I don't understand how someone can say they disagree with something when all they did was scan through the entire article. You missed a lot of important points.

154. datoserigarylaw unregistered


112. Stuntman

Posts: 843; Member since: Aug 01, 2011

I think the quality of the comments here reflect that you are doing your job well.

155. a_tumiwa

Posts: 393; Member since: Mar 16, 2012

so Michael, do u agree that Apple is wrong when they started a patent war against Samsung and the others?

157. VZWuser76

Posts: 4974; Member since: Mar 04, 2010

See I've been saying something similar to this for awhile now. I'd mention a feature that was supposedly new, and then bring up that they've had that feature on desktops & laptops for quite awhile. The response I'd always get was "Yeah, but this is on a phone!" So what? A smartphone is basically a pocket computer with radios to make wireless calls. All of these OSs for these phones could work or be adapted to work on a non mobile platform. So rather than re-issuing patents for mobile, they should go off of the original patent that's applicable, whether desktop or mobile. I'd bet a lot of the patents that people are suing over would be invalid because what they did was adapt someone else's patent to work on their device, and figured since it's on a mobile device that's new ground.

171. joey_sfb

Posts: 6794; Member since: Mar 29, 2012

I agree with you 100% that why Samsung and the rest of the world was shock when Apple sue Samsung over their design patent. Now everyone want to sue every body else over design and software patents. Learn about the new Oracle and Google follow-up law suit. Oracle and Microsoft wants more protection over their codes.

172. Mittal

Posts: 494; Member since: Dec 14, 2011

your thoughts on features having been present in other devices/platforms in some form or the other makes sense. But when we talk about taking inspiration from real life scenarios, to some extent , yes, we can say that its not a case of pure genious, but we must credit the first company to adopt that feature for its farsightedness and confidence to do the new thing in the electronic world.

174. haroonazeem638

Posts: 141; Member since: Mar 29, 2011

It is not the stealing part that should really bother anyone. With so many advancements in technology, it is almost impossible to come up with something that may not have existed before. This is because every new technology MUST depend on older technologies. Otherwise, it's like saying that everyone has been stealing from GOD. The reason why Apple is highlighted in this issue most is because of the terms they use when introducing products. You can't copy something and call it innovative or new or whatever term you want to use. You copied it, fine! Move on. So there IS a difference here.

184. Anti-troll-returns

Posts: 11; Member since: Jun 14, 2013

Stop putting ban on me.

207. JunitoNH

Posts: 1946; Member since: Feb 15, 2012

@Michael This is the reason adults run the world, not children. Fantasy is one thing, reality a whole different story.

224. jroc74

Posts: 6023; Member since: Dec 30, 2010

I agree with this article, Michael. I just wish an article like this popped up when soooo many fanboys accused Google, Android of copying Apple, iOS. that sense expect some backlash for this

2. Anti-Troll

Posts: 64; Member since: Jun 12, 2013

PHONEARENA DEFENDING IOS! Hahaha! And yet you are calling yourself unbiased.

4. MichaelHeller

Posts: 2734; Member since: May 26, 2011

And, there's the first person to completely misread the article...

8. Anti-Troll

Posts: 64; Member since: Jun 12, 2013

Thanks for replying. This is the first time that you have replied me.

141. TROLL

Posts: 4851; Member since: Apr 13, 2012

Cause you're new to PA®

185. Anti-troll-returns

Posts: 11; Member since: Jun 14, 2013

I am not new kiddo.

11. Anti-Troll

Posts: 64; Member since: Jun 12, 2013

But the point is.. They steal from it others. patent it and yet call it "innovation". They even sue others. That is not fair. For Example: iOS 7 multitasking is copied from WebOS/WP8 multitasking, did they gave credits? No.

17. feres13

Posts: 307; Member since: Dec 23, 2011

Has MS gave credits to WebOS when they copied their Multitasking UI in WP?? No

27. MichaelHeller

Posts: 2734; Member since: May 26, 2011

Ah feres got my point exactly

175. haroonazeem638

Posts: 141; Member since: Mar 29, 2011

YES, but when Apple copies, they also go to court for silly things they didn't really invent.

* Some comments have been hidden, because they don't meet the discussions rules.

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