Pirates and pioneers

Although Apple's innovative prowess has helped the company survive, it has ended up helping its competitors more

Everybody steals from Apple Computer Inc.

Or so the thinking goes in the Mac community.

Ever since Microsoft Corp. introduced Windows 1.0 in 1985, there has been a ceaseless chorus from Mac users accusing the software giant, based in Redmond, Wash., of pilfering Apple's best ideas and poorly implementing them for mass consumption in successive versions of its operating systems.

Mac users had their dander up again last week after Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates introduced a prototype called Athens, built by Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard Co., at the WinHEC (Windows Hardware Engineering Conference) event in New Orleans.

Two aspects of Athens got under Mac users' skin:

  • The appearance of the machine, which -- with its translucent plastics, the cinema-like dimensions of its display and its curved edges -- led many reviewers to compare it with Apple products.

  • Gates' explanation for co-developing a PC with a hardware vendor.

    Hardware and software development had at times been "a little out of sync," Gates said.

    "The best way to advance the state of the art is to work even more closely, always starting from the customer's perspective and focusing on the combination of hardware and software that works best to create an innovative and compelling PC," he said.

    The notion of designing computer hardware and software in tandem is, indeed, a terrific idea, but Microsoft and HP are late in embracing it.

    Apple, based in Cupertino, Calif., has been designing personal computers that way for 25 years and isn't alone. Several companies that build sophisticated business computers -- IBM Corp. and Sun Microsystems Inc., among them -- also have done it that way for a long time.

    Veteran Mac devotees can reel off a lengthy list of similar incidents, from Microsoft's legendary quest to duplicate the Macintosh operating system's look and feel to knockoffs of such Apple software as iMovie with Windows Movie Maker.

    Though Apple fans may seethe, the truth is that "borrowing" ideas from competitors is an accepted and common business practice. Genuine inventions can be patented, but clever ideas will always be ripped off -- especially when there is money to be made.

    For that matter, many of Apple's storied innovations actually have been improvements -- though often vast improvements -- on existing ideas: the graphic user interface pioneered by Xerox Corp.'s Palo Alto Research Center that Apple reworked into the Macintosh interface, introduced as early as 1983, and 2001's acclaimed iPod, which grew from Apple's desire to make a better MP3 player.

    "Success always has a thousand fathers," said Tim O'Reilly, founder and president of O'Reilly & Associates, the computer book publisher based in Sebastopol, Calif.

    "But what Apple does so well," O'Reilly added, "is to realize the potential in a technology and to frame it in such a way that people discover that they need it."

    Josh Bernoff, an analyst for Forrester Research Inc. in Cambridge, Mass., agreed, saying Apple is good at figuring out when technologies are ripe and at how best to popularize them.

    But, inevitably, the companies of the PC world -- be it Microsoft, Gateway or anyone else -- recognize the value in an Apple idea and copy it.

    "There's enormous pressure on Apple to continue to innovate," Bernoff said. "Everything they do gets commoditized by somebody else and all the profit driven out of it."

  • bal-mac051503
    Advertisement

    PHOTO GALLERIES

    TOP VIDEO

    CONNECT WITH US


    2013 YEAR IN REVIEW
    Look for this special section in your
    Baltimore Sun newspaper on Dec. 29, 2013.
    • Twitter
    • Facebook
    • Instagram
    • Google Plus
    • RSS Feeds
    • Mobile Alerts and Apps