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Apple knows how to Steal Like an Artist

By Evan Wade / June 11, 2014


Apple knows how to Steal Like an Artist

If you happen to follow WhatsApp CEO Jan Koum on Twitter, you may have noticed a rather accusatory tweet during Apple’s WWDC keynote presentation.

Koum wasn’t alone. A number of companies cried “thief” by the time the two-hour presentation came to a close, but the question remains; did Apple steal, or did they simply Steal Like an Artist? As the best-selling book suggests, there are subtle difference between taking an idea and calling it your own versus taking an idea and MAKING it your own. We may never know which bucket Apple truly belongs in, but we can certainly state our opinion.

Apple’s history with “borrowing”

Apple and words like sharing and copying have always had a bit of a complicated relationship. The company has always been quick to defend their intellectual property, even going as far as to come up with a combination of tactics they call “thermonuclear war” and “akido moves,” according to CNET and several other sources.

Between Google, Microsoft, and countless other “frenemy” relationships they’ve co-created over the decades, it seems like they’ve been in court defending their work more often than they haven’t. To a large degree, this philosophy makes sense. When you’re one of the biggest companies in the world, you have to make sure others aren’t coming too close to the style that got you there in the first place. Besides that, there’s little room for ideas like hypocrisy in the world of business; an entity will always take the position that’s most beneficial to its circumstances. (Or need we remind you of Pirates of Silicon Valley?)

But it’d also be wrong to say Apple hasn’t done its fair share of borrowing, sometimes on a scale that would probably leave them displeased if the roles were reversed. If true, the so-called “Prometheus myth” of Steve Jobs visiting Xerox PARC—where he was supposedly introduced to the mouse, the graphical user interface, and several other things we consider standard today—could have changed the history of computing.

The point is, the computer industry is built on companies taking pre-existing technology and maximizing the potential. This is great when you’re the innovator everyone is praising, but it’s a whole different story once they start tinkering with your latest creation.

Apple and WhatsApp

At first glance, iOS 8’s messaging updates are pretty comprehensive. A gearburn.com update says users now get “push-to-record voice and video, group messaging, location sharing, multiple image and video sharing, and attachment viewing from within the Messages app.”

The problem is, WhatsApp has offered much of the same functionality from the beginning—potentially making the app redundant for people who want to make the most of the iOS ecosystem. Even if the move is aimed directly at WhatsApp—or its parent company, Facebook—there’s no denying that many of the updates are a logical progression from Apple’s current slate of messaging features.

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“It’s perfect for sending a quick message to your lawyers.”

It makes perfect business sense for Apple to encourage users to choose their ecosystem over competing apps, but does the move instantly seal WhatsApp’s fate among smartphone users? Absolutely not. Between Android and other OS users, plus the host of iOS fans that will stay loyal to what they know, Facebook’s acquisition is far from ruined.

Did Apple directly steal from WhatsApp? That’s harder to say, but we’re leaning more towards “business move” than “theft.” They saw a spot where they could improve their service (possibly to another company’s detriment) and they did it. Unfortunately, the debate surrounding whether or not Apple truly improved upon the idea, rather than taking it for their own benefit, won’t be decided until iOS 8 reaches the public.

Continuity, device integration and Wi-Fi calling

From there, the supposed thefts start to look more and more like regular feature additions and less like deception. Take a look at the slate of “Continuity” features for iOS 8 and its desktop counterpart, OS X Yosemite. Handoff, a feature that lets you carry activities like Web browsing sessions and email drafts from iPhone to iPad to computer, may be drawing comparisons to Google Drive, but the new feature is perfectly in line with a philosophy Apple has carried since the early days: cross-device compatibility.

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“You know, like Google and Microsoft are doing.”

There have been similar comparisons drawn up around Apple’s new Wi-Fi calling feature, but this is one instance where Apple clearly improved upon a pre-existing technology. Sure, you could previously find a number and type it into Google Voice or Skype, but never before have you been able to double click number in your browser and call it directly from your PC. And let’s not forget to mention how awesome it will be to answer phone calls from your laptop, even if your iPhone is nowhere in sight.

Android vs. Apple

The list of new similarities between iOS and Android was so big, even TIME wrote an article about it. TIME also holds a position we happen to share: As long as Apple is “putting their own spin on it,” copying isn’t a bad thing at all. Instead, it’s a basic building block of competition, which itself is a huge part of innovation in any market.

“Instead of just blindly copying Android,” the article says, “Apple has found ways to improve upon key Android features, while adding other things that are entirely new. Now it’s Google’s turn to try and do the same.”

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“Did somebody say Widgets?”

To that end, Apple’s just doing what every other company’s trying to do: following the logical progression of improvement to services they already offer. Sure, lightbulb-over-the-head moments happen from time to time, and they typically send the industry down a whole new course, but building an ecosystem is usually a slow-but-steady stream of small improvements.

Let’s put the situation in reverse. Apple’s Continuity features may be catching flack for resembling Office 365, but on the flipside, Microsoft has introduced its Cortana digital assistant service that they claim is smarter than Siri. While they’ve undoubtedly caught some flack for it, it’s hard to argue that the tone from tech media and onlookers alike has been receptive despite the strategy.

Trouble from down under

It’s one thing for Apple to step on the toes of world-renowned brands like Google, Microsoft and WhatsApp (thanks to Facebook), but it’s a slightly different story when they completely steamroll a startup. Courts are usually more sympathetic to these David v. Goliath tales, and they’ll soon be hearing a new one from an Australian company named HealthKit.

Sound familiar? Yes, that IS the name of the new health platform Apple is hanging their biometrics hat on, but it’s also the name of an Aussie company who’s been mixing health and technology since 2012. Although an official lawsuit has yet to be filed, founder Alison Hardacre believes, “We won’t let them trample over our product … someone needs to be fired for this.”

Could HealthKit (the company) potentially bring down Apple (the juggernaut) with legal action? Of course not! But do they at least deserve a nice little settlement? That’s for the courts to decide. Until then, Apple should just keep following that age-old adage …

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