Apple Fury Over Android Is 1988 and Windows All Over Again

Last Updated Oct 21, 2011 8:51 AM EDT

When it came to Google's (GOOG) Android operating system, Apple (AAPL) co-founder and former CEO Steve Jobs was more than irritated by a competitor. He was furious. Outraged. Bitter. He vowed to "spend his last dying breath ... and every penny of Apple's $40 billion in the bank" to "right this wrong," because he saw Android as a stolen product.

If you've been around long high tech enough, this will sound familiar. It's exactly the stance that Apple took toward Windows in 1988 when it sued Microsoft (MSFT). Although many of the specifics are different, there are eerie similarities -- most of all in Apple's reaction. The march to destroy Android is a symptom of a flaw in the character of Jobs and of Apple's culture. Left unchecked, it will distract management and waste resources that would be better used to advance the business.

Windows must die
Apple licensed elements of its operating system in 1985 because it badly wanted Microsoft to ensure a new version of Word for Macintosh and to delay Excel for Windows by a year. Then-CEO John Sculley made the deal after firing Jobs. Sculley would eventually say that Apple's lawyers weren't good enough, leaving a big hole that would let Microsoft continue to use the concepts in future versions of Windows.

Apple sued Microsoft when Windows 2.0 came out, claiming a copyright infringement. But that was only the technical expression. What Apple really meant was that Microsoft couldn't otherwise compete, so it stole ideas. It copied. It wronged Apple, and the company was angry and vengeful. The suit lasted years, during which it became a major distraction when Apple management already had enough problems and was driving the business into the ground.

It's different when we do it
Few people are comfortable with having their work copied. But what makes Apple odd in this sense is that it had often taken ideas from others. Apple had obtained the fundamental concepts of graphical user interfaces and using a mouse as an input device from Xerox.

Granted, Apple paid for the two tours that Jobs and some engineers took of the Palo Alto Research Center by allowing Xerox to invest $1 million in the still-private Apple. But still, Apple came to see everything as its own. Maybe it's was because of the early Jobs legacy of "good artists copy, great artists steal," a variation on a quote at times attributed to Pablo Picasso or T.S. Eliot. (An aside for the literarily-minded: apparently T.S. Eliot wrote "immature poets imitate; mature poets steal." I'd recommend reading the completely quote.)

Whatever the reason, Apple has never been shy about pulling in what it found useful. The same is true for all the iDevices. There are features Apple has pulled into its products that Android sported long before. But it becomes irate when the movement of ideas goes in the other direction.

Losing control
There's an old joke in computing that goes, "It's not a bug, it's a feature." But when things, or people, go out of control, you could say the opposite just as easily. The feature runs away and does what it will, even if something else makes more practical sense. It's the state of mind of the ideologue or visionary. That's fine, so long as there is a balance somewhere.

But when it comes to perceiving that it's been wronged, Apple may not have that ability. Certainly Jobs didn't seem to. Really, spend every dollar available to right the wrong of someone copying what you did? Pursuing Microsoft over Windows may not have caused Apple's previous diminution, but it was a factor. How much is Apple really willing to spend to send Google to the woodshed?

Related:

Image: Flickr user Denis Dervisevic, CC 2.0.
  • Erik Sherman On Twitter» On Facebook»

    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.