Who steals the most ideas?Apple, Google, Samsung?

June 19, 2018, 7:05 am

   You think people get riled up about politics and religion? Try insulting someones phone.
   Apparently, a lot of people hang their identities on what phones they carry. An iPhone person might feel personally affronted when a Samsung Galaxy gets a great review, and vice versa.
Who steals the most ideas?Apple, Google, Samsung?
   These days, since all smartphones have pretty much the same features, it seems to be searingly important to remember which brand had those features first. Android must be better, because it had a quick-settings panel before Apple did! The iPhone must be better, because it had Find My Phone first! And so on.
   It seems very important to identify which phone had a feature first.MoreNow then.According to the law, you cant copyright an idea, only the expression of that idea. Apple found that out the hard way when, in 1988, it filed a lawsuit accusing Microsoft of copying the Macs interface (mouse, windows, menus)and lost. From that day onward, blatantly ripping off other companies ideas became part of doing business. Google steals. Samsung steals. Microsoft, Facebook, and Amazon steal. And yes, Apple steals.

   On one hand, why should we care? Whats wrong with bringing great ideas to as many people as possible?
   On the other hand, I can understand the phone cultists pain. Seems like a company should get credit for inventing an idea. Instead, it gets only a few months of exclusivity before its rivals catch up.
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   (The late Apple co-founder Steve Jobscertainly cared about idea theft. Our lawsuit is saying, Google, you f**king ripped off the iPhone, wholesale ripped us off,` Jobs told biographer Walter Isaacson. Im going to destroy Android, because its a stolen product. Im willing to go to thermonuclear war on this. They are scared to death, because they know they are guilty.)
   So I thought: After all these decades of consumers pointing the finger, maybe we should settle this once and for all. Which company is the biggest copycat?
   What if someone with too much time on his hands were to dive into the hundreds of features that make a phone a phone, and track down which company first introduced each one?
   Yeah, thatd mean months of tedious effort. But think of the payoff! For the first time ever, wed know. Wed see which company should hang its head in ripoff shame.
   You can probably see where this is going. Thats how I spent my spring.


The methodology

   First, I made up a list of every major feature thats standard on smartphones today. Pinch-to-zoom. Auto-rotating screen. Slow-mo video. Word suggestions above the keyboard. A quick settings panel. Voice assistant. Voice calling. Private browsing. And on and on.
   Second, I hunted down the first appearance of every feature by poring through old user manuals, Wikipedia, tech reviews, and how-to books. With help from my assistant Jan Carpenter, we eventually filled in a spreadsheet, which you can see here.
   I turned the data over to David Foster, infographics lead for Oath Studios, who designed the timelines you see below. Each one shows clearly not just which company wins each horse race, but how long it took its rivals to copy each feature. The timeline bars also provide a fascinating look at how smartphones have evolved since the iPhones debut in 2007.


Now, a few notes on this projects limitations:

   Ive restricted the game to three players: Apple, Samsung, and Google. Some features may have appeared first in phones by smaller companies, but most of the you stole that! accusations involve the Big Three. Especially when it comes to software features (Apples iOS vs. Googles Android) and hardware features (Apples iPhone vs. Samsungs Galaxy S series).Not all features get stolen. Nobody ever copied Apples Force Touch screen idea (detects how hard youre pressing) or its Emergency SOS siren (to use when youre being mugged). Similarly, to this day, only Android offers desktop widgets and multiple user accounts on the phone. And Samsung, through the years, has introduced dozens of features that nobody chose to imitate (built-in heart-rate sensor, auto-scrolling based on your head tilt). This story is about features that have become universal, so those features dont appear here.Also not included: Features that existed before the smartphone era, like downloadable ringtones. They werent Apples, Samsungs, or Googles ideas in the first place.Even with all of this research and documentation, Im sure there will be much to argue about. Does Samsungs easily fooled face recognition get credit for being first, when Apples later implementation, which uses depth cameras that cant be fooled by a photo, is far better? Should a company get credit for being the leader, when the feature it introduced seems obvious and inevitable (say, an on-screen keyboard)? Should a feature be listed if two companies introduced it more or less simultaneously?


Story Continues

   In all three cases, Ive answered yes as I built this study. As long as its an even playing fieldthe same rules apply to all three companiesthe sheer number of examples should average out any cases where one company gets the benefit of the doubt.


All right, ready for the results? Scroll on.


OS Features

   Apple invented the touchscreen phone as we know it. The original 2007 iPhone brought us multitouch (pinch to zoom), an on-screen keyboard, auto-rotate, lists that scroll as though with momentum, and the apps-on-a-Home-page design that we all use to this day.
   Not surprisingly, then, Apple wins this category, having introduced 13 ideas, compared to Androids 10 (and Samsungs 1).



   The screen is the first thing you notice when you turn on a phonehow big, bright, and gorgeous it is.
   Samsung has spent years pushing the size envelope: Its screens were the first to reach 4 inches, then 5 inches, then 6 inches diagonal. Steve Jobs always favored tiny phones, but eventually, Apple had to admit that the public wanted bigger screens, even if it meant bigger phones. Samsung has led the way with OLED screens, tooApple finally adopted this stunning screen technology in the iPhone X.


Even so, Apple barely wins this category, 6 to 4.


Text & Voice

   Smartphones dont have physical keyboards. So how can you quickly and accurately enter text?
   Over the years, Apple and Google have introduced one new feature after another to address this problem. That includes Apples introduction of Siri (even though Apple didnt create Siri in-house), and Googles introduction of a hands-free, voice-triggered assistant (OK Googlewhats the weather?).


Google wins this one: Android 6, Apple 5.



   Why do we even call these things phones? Making calls is the last thing many people use them for. The first, of course, is taking photos and videos.
   Believe it or not, the first smartphones didnt have a flash, didnt have a front-facing camera, and couldnt even record video. How did we live?
   This time, the innovation rate is nearly tied: Apple 6, Android 6, and Samsung 5.



   No surprise that the rate of new ideas in phone calling has slowed down recently; for many of us, texting and even video calling are our comms of choice.


The calling/texting score: a tie. Android 3, Apple 3.


Hardware Features

   The first smartphones didnt have stereo speakers, GPS chips, and wireless charging, and werent water resistant; all of that came later. Kudos to Samsung for figuring out how to waterproof its phones without losing the headphone jack.


The score: Apple 2, Android 2, Samsung 1.



   These days, the internet is the whole point, isnt it? We expect our phones to show us websites and emails exactly as theyd appear on our laptops and desktops, full of formatting, photos, and videos. All of the features listed here are standard on smartphonesbut somebody originally dreamed each of them up.


The winner: Apple, with 4 inventions. Android had 3.



   Security means protection for both the physical phonewhen you leave it somewhere, or when it gets stolenand for its contents. (Activation lockthe iOS feature that makes it impossible to erase a stolen phone without the owners Apple ID credentialswas single-handedly responsible for plummeting iPhone thefts around the world. Why bother stealing a phone if you cant erase it and resell it?)
   The tally here: Apple brought forth three out of four of these breakthroughs.



   Little by little, cables and cords are going away. Look at the list of things that once required cables and can now happen wirelessly: sending video playback from the phone to the TV, listening to headphones, printing, sending files to other phones and computers, paying at a cashier terminal, and, lately, even charging.
   Android and iOS tie for the greatest number of cable eliminations, with 3 apiece.


The Results

   When the dust settles, whos the winner? Who innovates the most phone ideas, and who steals the most?
   Apple leads the invention category, with 44 innovations, according to our calculations. Googles Android comes in second, with 31. And Samsung brings up the rear with 12 innovations.
   Now, if you count the number of times each company is listed as aFollower in the spreadsheet, you discover that Apple also seems to havestolen the most ideas. In part, thats because Im pitting Apple against Google/Samsung (its phones use Googles software). As a result, no feature ever listsGoogle and Samsung as innovator+follower, or vice versa; theyre always a single team.
   This setup gives Apple an advantage, because it has two companies to steal frombut also a disadvantage, since its two-on-one.
   Of course, in the end, none of this tabulation really matters. The real conclusion of thismassive research exercise is this: whoever makes your favorite phone steals ideas. They all doalways have, always will. Its how thebusiness runs.
   I still hope that, each time some engineering team swipes a great idea from a competitor, they feel a hot little spike of shame. Well, hey, they do it! is not a satisfying reason for copying someone elses idea. And Keeping Up with the Joneses is not the recipe for creating an original, differentiated phone that reflects your companys philosophy and values.
   If youre among those who grow indignant when the phone you despise shows up with a feature copied from the one you love, maybe its time to accept the marketplace reality that everybody rips off ideas.
   If nothing else, youll have a lot more time to debate politics and religion.
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