Slavish copying is never classy, but it inspires needed innovation

Taylor Martin
 from  Concord, NC
| Published: April 26, 2012

Mobile platforms have come a long way in a very short time. Just five years ago, Android was an unreleased product, iOS (then called iPhone OS) was brand new, BlackBerry was aging but very much still in charge and Windows Mobile was, well ... Windows Mobile. I'm not even sure webOS was even an idea yet.

Now Android and iOS control the market, Windows Phone has replaced Windows Mobile and is the up-and-coming platform to watch, BlackBerry OS has fallen to the wayside and webOS has been open-sourced and is hanging on by a very thin thread.

Over the course of five years, not only have these platforms traded market share and mind share, they have completely evolved to bring a truly revolutionary and seamless computing experience to mobile devices. Each platform has a unique set of advantages. And with each and every update, all of the platforms become more refined, coherent, intuitive and integrated with our cloud-driven lives.

... Oh, and they all become more like one another, too.

Yesterday, in court documents released during Oracle's ongoing lawsuit against Google over the intellectual property surrounding the Java programming language they acquired when purchasing Sun Microsystems, we were given a look at what Android used to be prior to May 2007 (which was a very important inflection point in the mobile world). The Android prototype shown was a BlackBerry-like device (it actually reminds me more of the Creative Zen Vision:M MP4 player that I carried back in high school) from 2006 that came sans touchscreen; it's vaguely similar to the other (later) Android prototype that a Gizmodo reader sent in that is pictured at the top.

Shortly after the glimpse at old Android hardware, we were shown an array of screenshots of the Android operating system from no later than May 2007, which clearly was not created with touch input in mind. (This part, beyond the shadow of a doubt, looks almost identical to older versions of the BlackBerry OS.)

Since then, several people have pointed out to me exactly what Apple has accused Eric Schmidt (a former Apple board member and former Google CEO) and Google of for years – the whole reason Steve Jobs took out a personal vendetta on Android in the first place. And this is why I noted that May 2007 was a such a major inflection point.

The original iPhone was unveiled by Jobs in January of 2007 and later launched in June of that same year. Between May and November of 2007, Google's ideal Android device transitioned from the device you see above to a larger touchscreen device without a keyboard (that you can catch a glimpse of in this video). Along with a radical change in external design, the interface greatly changed, too. Jobs' claim was that the Android team slavishly copied Apple's iPhone and Jobs made a vow to destroy the "stolen product."

Essentially, this Oracle suit has spawned a bit of backlash for Google. Many are saying they have done nothing but copy the competition and produced uninspired software. Just look through The Verge comments on yesterday's article about the original Google Phone prototype. "Android is all stolen," says one commenter. The rest of the 402 comments are of readers bickering back and forth about what other Google/Android products look like other iDevices and so on and so forth.

So let's get the cat out of the bag. Yes. Google definitely copied BlackBerry. And they've definitely copied Apple more than once. And Android manufacturers have definitely copied Apple. And ... And ... And ...

But just try to imagine where we might be if Android had never come along. Or imagine if Google had kept Android BlackBerry-like. Imagine what your favorite smartphones would be like, or what features they might be missing (free turn by turn navigation, anyone?), or how unimaginative all of the smartphone software might be.

There's no denying that Apple changed the smartphone market, but they didn't do it alone. They did it with the help of all the other platforms, and a large part of that credit should go to Google. And Apple, nor Microsoft, nor Palm nor any related manufacturer are any more innocent of copying than Google is. Apple blatantly copied the Android notification system, which has been used since 2008, and mixed it with the webOS notification method with Notification Center in iOS 5. And multitasking was not added to iOS until after webOS – a mobile multitasking masterpiece – came along. (And there's reason to believe Apple may have copied LG, if you want to look too closely.)

The fact of the matter is: in one way or another, every mobile company out there copies another one. As low as that sounds, it's not all bad, however. In such a crowded space, companies are bound to step on each other's toes. This blatant copying has been going on for far longer than the mobile market has been around, and one good thing has always come of it: innovation. While copied designs may be uninspired, they force other companies (usually the ones who are copied) to innovate and to one-up the competition once again. In the case of mobile, though, it has been a long, ongoing game of copycat leapfrog. (How long do you think it would have taken Apple to implement copy and paste or wallpapers had Android not had them?)

All I know for sure is two things. One company copying another, as sleazy as it is, doesn't bother me. It forces the competition to move and innovate new products, features, etc. In the long run, the companies still make their money and we reap the benefits of more innovative products. Second, all of these patent infringement suits are pointless. Everyone has copied some other company (very likely more than once) and probably infringed on more than a couple patents with every product.

We all (including the companies involved) should just move on, cut losses and enjoy the awesome products we currently have and those that are on the horizon. And all of the companies currently suing or planning to sue over patent infringements should take a moment and consult a dictionary for the word "hypocrisy."

Image via Gizmodo