Steve Jobs’ description of Android as ‘stolen’ is unfair, but his anger that Google developed its own mobile OS knew no bounds, says Wayne Rash
One of the many revelations in the biography of Steve Jobs from author Walter Isaacson is Jobs’ assertion that Android was a “stolen product.” According to Hayley Tsukayama’s report in The Washington Post, Jobs was furious about Android and vowed to spend all of Apple’s cash to destroy it. The problem is Jobs was wrong about Android. Or if he’s right, then the iPhone was also a stolen product.
The reason that Steve Jobs was wrong is fairly simple to see if you’ve watched technology product development over the years. Nearly every product grows on the work done before it and the iPhone (and iPod Touch) are no exception. Apple created a very nice design for the iPhone, a design that was innovative, included new ways of doing things and most of all was attractive. But the iPhone was a derivative of other products, and while it was an improvement over what came before it (as it should be), it still depended on the ideas developed in those earlier products.
Apple was not the first
You have to ask yourself what it was that Jobs thought made Android a stolen product. Was it the user interface of icons on a screen that launched applications when touched? Palm had that feature years before Apple ever had a phone. Was it the touch-screen? Palm had that, too, although it worked better if you used a stylus, but then, so does the iPhone. Was it the third-party applications? Several handheld devices had that long before the iPhone, including some Windows-driven phones as well as those from Palm. Was it the integration of email and the personal digital assistant? There were a lot of those out there, too, including the BlackBerry devices.
So what exactly is it that Jobs thinks Android took from Apple? The sleek look of the device? Can you patent that? The thin profile? The touch keyboard? Apple didn’t invent any of those things, although the company’s designers did a masterful job of integrating them into a single product. Perhaps, it was the ability to play music on your device? Nope, Apple wasn’t first with that, either.
So why is it that Steve Jobs was so willing to blow his company’s cash reserves on an endless marketing and legal campaign to destroy this product? Was it perhaps a statement of Steve Jobs’ famous temperament? Perhaps it was his belief that only Apple could have good ideas? It’s hard to tell now that Jobs is gone, but Jobs was famous for his temperament as related by Doug Hardy in Forbes.
Jobs ‘s vendetta
In reality, the iPhone, as nice as it is, is derivative of the products that preceded it in the market. While Apple did a beautiful job of the user interface, and made a device that’s attractive enough to garner a gazillion followers and an ecosystem that was just closed enough to control while being open enough to gain a great deal of external support, the iPhone still depended on the work of others.
This is true of Apple’s products in general. As nice as the original Macintosh may have been, it depended on Xerox for the original design for the interface. As nice as the Apple II may have been, it too was based on predecessors. But this isn’t to suggest that the Macintosh or the Apple II were bad computers or that they shouldn’t have been developed using the concepts of others. There really is no alternative.
Despite Apple’s claims of uniqueness, the company couldn’t have been completely unique if it expected to actually sell computers. Apple didn’t invent computing after all. The company simply developed software using a different approach from what was emerging elsewhere at the time. Of course, Apple insisted on using a closed platform. The company refused, except for a brief time, to allow clones of its product. And when clones did appear, Apple put them out of business.
I suspect that the only reason Apple escaped the interest of the US Justice Department is that the market share at the time was so small that it would be hard to prove anti-competitive behaviour. But the fact is that Apple could never have existed if not for the ideas and creations of other companies. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
Shifting the bar
For technology to exist at all, it can’t possibly be invented afresh every time. Great products depend on earlier ones that manage to move the state of the art forward. They depend on other changes in other technologies, and they depend on a vast range of ideas beyond the reach of any single company or any single person. Likewise, designs grow from other designs from other places. And companies that believe that their designs are somehow unique and divorced from everything are deluding themselves.
So why was it that Jobs was so irate about Android? Was it because Android came from the company run by Eric Schmidt, one of his board members? I’m sure that Jobs’ sense of betrayal was rooted in this and in his belief that he was the only one who had great ideas. But the fact is that the world is full of great ideas. What Apple did was take some of those great ideas and execute them very well. That in itself is great enough. You don’t need to denigrate others who do the same. And when Jobs did that, he diminished himself in the process.