Periodically, Apple's (AAPL) senior vice president of design, Jonathan "Jony" Ive, gets angry at copycats. In response to a question at a recent event about Chinese smartphone manufacturer Xiaomi, Ive said that he didn't see copying as flattery. "I actually see it as theft," he said.
In March 2014, Ive said the same thing to the U.K.'s Sunday Times. "What's copied isn't just a design, it's thousands and thousands of hours of struggle," he said.
Apple and, by extension, Ive's work has been highly influential in the industry. But one person's theft is another person's inspiration, and all high tech companies, including Apple, have licensed and often freely borrowed ideas, and sometimes a lot more, from one another.
Experts who study innovation say that it inevitably is the result of multiple people working together. To be innovative requires new connections between ideas that hadn't necessarily been put together before. Sometimes the missing link is noticed by someone else first, and Apple was never one to shy away from what others did.
Many of the fundamental ideas that made Apple's future with the Mac came from Xerox. In the 1980s, Steve Jobs negotiated a trade of Apple stock for access to what Xerox's research division was working on, including graphical user interfaces and the mouse. If it weren't for the existence of Unix, the modern Mac operating system would not have existed. A passage from Walter Isaacson's biography of Jobs, as excerpted in Fortune, provides an interesting story of a time that Apple's late former CEO decided to challenge Bill Gates on Microsoft's (AAPL) "theft" of the Mac's graphical operating system (hat tip to ReadWrite):
Their meeting was in Jobs's conference room, where Gates found himself surrounded by ten Apple employees who were eager to watch their boss assail him. Jobs didn't disappoint his troops. "You're ripping us off!" he shouted. "I trusted you, and now you're stealing from us!" Gates just sat there coolly, looking Steve in the eye, before hurling back, in his squeaky voice, what became a classic zinger. "Well, Steve, I think there's more than one way of looking at it. I think it's more like we both had this rich neighbor named Xerox and I broke into his house to steal the TV set and found out that you had already stolen it."
The original iPod was heavily influenced by two other companies: Braun and Bang & Olufsen. Braun, which was a source of leading industrial design for many years, had developed a pocket radio with a look, including a scrolling wheel, which Apple would reportedly emulate. The idea for the click wheel was allegedly taken from a Bang & Olufsen phone.
Move to phones and there are many features that Google (GOOG) had introduced in its Android mobile operating system long before Apple finally provided something similar. They include such things as swipe-down notifications, voice-activated commands, predictive text, and even multitasking.
Even Apple's form factors, with larger screens, have more than a touch of emulating Samsung designs.
In response to Ive's comments, Hugo Barra, Xiaomi vice president for international markets, was quoted as saying: "If you look at the iPhone 6, iPhone 6 has been using the design language that has been around for a while. The iPhone 6 is using design language that HTC has had for 5 years. You cannot claim full ownership of any kind of design languages in our industry."
Jobs once said in 1996, "Picasso had a saying -- good artists copy; great artists steal -- and we have always been shameless about stealing great ideas." He meant that taking ideas as the groundwork and then going beyond should be the goal. But where copying leaves off and artistic theft begins is a line far more blurry than Apple often claims.