Dear Tim Cook: Apple is not the world's tech inventor

Steve Jobs is famous for borrowing a phrase that may or may not have originated with Pablo Picasso: "Good artists copy; great artists steal". He said in the documentary Triumph of the Nerds that Apple "has always been shameless about stealing great ideas".

Yet in recent years, Jobs was outraged over Android's similarities to iOS. He branded HTC as thieves, and said that he was "willing to go to thermonuclear war" against Google over what he called "grand theft Android". Now, CEO Tim Cook seems to have picked up Jobs' outraged-victim torch, saying in Apple's most recent earnings call that the rest of the tech industry is drafting off Apple's innovations, and failing to "invent their own stuff". Apple, he said, cannot "become the developer for the world".

Developer for the world? We guess we shouldn't be surprised that hubris is alive and well at Apple, it being as ingrained a value as sans serif fonts and white lucite. But at a time when the Patent Wars are spiralling out of control, we really are looking at the kind of thermonuclear war envisioned in War Games — the kind where everybody loses.

Cook's wording horrified us; he's inflaming an already red-hot litigation climate, and we're shocked at the sheer gall of suggesting that Apple, and Apple alone, "invented" every bit of the tech that dominates our lives. No, this is not the part where I talk about all the ideas that Apple "stole". The point is not to blame others for stealing ideas. The point is that idea stealing is itself an increasingly ridiculous concept.

We've all heard the apocryphal story about Jobs brazenly lifting the idea for the mouse, the graphical user interface, bit-mapping and more from Xerox after a visit to Xerox PARC. In fact, that's not the truth. Jobs was inspired by things he saw at Xerox PARC, and went on to improve on some of those ideas and license others. Then he came to market before his competitors could see the opportunities they had before them. It's business.

Jobs and Apple have often been accused of stealing ideas from Microsoft's Windows operating system, and vice versa. In both cases, inspiration unquestionably occurred, even if implementation differed, but the borrowing is obvious. Why wouldn't it be? It's business.

When Apple detailed the new features in the then-forthcoming iOS 5, the mobile OS was obviously playing catch-up with features inspired by, if not actually lifted from, other mobile platforms: pull-down notifications (Android), iMessage (BlackBerry Messenger) and on-screen notifications (Windows Mobile and others). Again, the implementation differed, but the inspiration was easily traced. Do what the competition is doing; it's just business.

Meanwhile, the jailbreak community is like the farm team for Apple development ideas. Borrowed. Inspired by. Improved upon. The world is Apple's muse. The world is everyone's muse. Just like how the Xerox PARC story is full of grey areas, the world of ideas and invention is almost never as cleanly black and white as any Apple aesthetic.

And Jobs knew this. That's exactly the ethos behind the "great artists" quote — that inspiration comes from everywhere, and is remade in the artist's vision. Business is business, and business is about making products better as those products evolve, often in tandem and almost never in a vacuum.

Yet, there stands Cook, and Jobs before him, bristling with outrage over Android, full of fury and loss-aversion over the alleged rip-off of multi-touch and the iPhone interface. And yet both cheerfully ignore the fact that Apple's patented multi-touch technology was mostly acquired in 2005, in the form of a company called FingerWorks — not invented at all.

Yes, Apple's acquisition of FingerWorks was brilliant, and it was smart to continue compiling multi-touch patents (and the fault of the US patent system for continuing to grant them, perhaps).

But Apple was not the first company to invent or even think of touchscreen and multi-touch technology — or even to invent or think of making attractive gadgets. They just own all of the patents. That's quite a significant difference, and the arrogance of accusing the rest of the tech community of being broadly unable to invent or innovate is staggering.

"Invention" is an impossible thing to determine in the tech world — innovation and ideas are pandemic by nature, and inspiration is and always has been a difficult concept to pin down. After all, even Jonathan Ives said that Jobs stole his ideas.

Apple has smartly used patents to its advantage since the days when Jobs using a patent threat to force Bill Gates to invest in the then-foundering company. It has used the leniency of the US patent system to amass a constant and steady stream of patents related to virtually everything it creates. But this inventor's martyr complex is both unbecoming and inaccurate. Bad enough that we're back in the Cold War era when it comes to patents; just call it what it is: business.


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ozoneocean posted a comment   

Excellent article!

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