Apple’s Research & Rip-off department

Peter and Apple's Copymachine

This whole thing is pretty interesting, especially when you’re as big as Apple and you have as dedicated a following as it does. And when your caché is innovation and constant coolification, you’ve always gotta deliver something wicked to knock ’em dead.

But, one supposes, those ideas need not come from within, and, when you’re Apple (or Google or whomever), looking to your community for ideas is probably as sure a bet as any for coming up with something you’d not thunk up (or at least not yet ripped off).

And so while Jobs gave his keynote at WWDC yesterday pointing out Redmond’s failure to deliver on Vista while OSX continues to steam ahead, I found it interesting that many of the features that they’re selling this upgrade with can already be found in the Mac developer community.

Take for example:

Now, don’t get me wrong. Building these features into the OS means that lots more people will get the benefit of these tools that many of us early adopters have already discovered. And, given Apple’s engineering and design pedigree, oftentimes that means that the Apple versions will be more stable, in some cases more useful and almost certainly more pretty (though not always).

But, it also means that a bunch of independent software developers who rely on selling these small but potent tools that Apple has now co-opted will lose business, not to mention get no return on the hard work, money and time spent building these tools. All Apple has to do is summarily drop a few of these features into a major dot-release, crank up the hype machine, and poof, more developers out of work. As Marc put it, what kind of ecosystem is that?

Unlike the open source community, where developer’s names are attached to the patches and contributions that they make to a project, Apple offers no such credit, and, in turn, takes all the glory.

And, if you read me much, you know that I’m a big proponent of open source, of open standards, and open formats; I also tend to see patents and trademarks as belonging to the litigious and anti-cooperative capitalist elite who can afford such protections, forcing the small business innovator to choose between either doing what she loves or taking the steps to protect it — as the cost, time and passion pursuing either makes both rather mutually exclusive.

And so it is yet another manifestation of the digital divide — of those who have the money and the legal departments to protect their innovations — or sue or pay off those who innovate for them — against those who live from registration to registration, making an independent and meaningful, yet staccatic economic, existence.

Update:Menuet developer Phill Ryu comes to pretty much the same conclusion, but with a few different examples.

Author: Chris Messina

Head of West Coast Business Development at Republic. Ever-curious product designer and technologist. Hashtag inventor. Previously: (YC W18), Uber, Google.

39 thoughts on “Apple’s Research & Rip-off department”

  1. Seems like Virtue Desktops is a complete rip, though may use different code, you would hope that Apple would be a bit more endearing and kind to developers who make apps or utils that get gobbled by OSX. There are plenty of good examples.

    Bryan Veloso is ripped off enough in the webworld, you’d wonder if his story is the inverse of Apple’s position: Rip and hope noone notices. In Apple’s case, it’s as you say, Rip and look the other way with your heavies all around.

    Oh, and did you notice the link was wrong on the iCal ( ) page yesterday and linked to CalDAV as instead of ? That was hilarious. And a simple slip up.

  2. Bundling apps with the OS is going to hurt independent software developers who might have products that serve these functions, but in Leopard, I wouldn’t label consider most of them “ripped off.”

    Time Machine looks and functions in a way substantially different from, say, iBackup. SuperDuper! didn’t put the concept of backing up data on the map, either.

    And in the case of Core Animation: it’s a component of the system, like Quartz, that’s going to make writing software like Coverflow easier. It’ll allow you to make flying widgets with the same ease that you can make transparent widgets, or drop-shadowed widgets. It is definitely not just an album art browser. Nor is it a format like SVG or FLA.

    I was seriously underwhelmed by the Leopard demo, but in fairness to Apple, there’s nothing really blatantly ripped here — not even “Shadow Copy,” since Time Machine looks like it has a radical and intuitive UI that’s wholly original. Not like Konfabulator was in Dashboard on Tiger.

  3. “Not like Konfabulator was in Dashboard on Tiger.”

    And to open the keynote with “PC” from the Apple commercials saying “Oh, and widgets, gadgets… *completely* different.”

    I would have liked to have been in the audience when that little slice of how-quickly-we-forget floated out of the speakers.

  4. I wrote a similar entry… I spent yesterday’s keynote hoping they hadn’t cloned my yet to be released software!

  5. On the other hand adding a feature like tabs to iChat isn’t exactly ground-breaking thinking — Apple’s engineers have surely had that on their Ideas List since day 1.

    Independent developers are able to implement addons like that because they’re not subject to the same stresses and schedules that software and OS teams will be at Apple. They’re nimble, have a low barrier of entry, and if it’s a bunch of crap they don’t really have to worry about much of a backlash.

    Virtually all the features that people are complaining about are obvious, logical steps in each piece of software’s development. Apple can hardly sit back and stop improving features of its OS and software for fear of upsetting a few freelance developers who’ve had similar ideas and, being unencumbered by NDA and the schedules of a large company, are able to do something about it.

    If you’ve ever produced software (or launched an application-like site) then you’ll know that when you launch you have a million and one ideas on the whiteboard which you haven’t had time to implement yet. And you can guarantee that the moment you do launch you’ll receive numerous emails, and read numerous blog posts saying “It would be nice if you did X.”

    You know you have to do X, it’s been on your feature list for the past 8 months, you’re dying to implement it… but time and other factors mean you can’t launch with every feature on day 1.

    Blah blah blah.

    Honestly, if someone wants to base their entire livelihood on something amazingly obvious as tabbed iChat then they need their head examining. The same way people who build an entire business on MySpace plugins. It’s madness. At some point the big slow machine that is Apple is going to get to implement the list of features they’ve had written down since before the product was even announced to the public, and when they do the careless will lose their market share and posts like this pop up.

    Now, Quicksilver, well that’s a different matter…

  6. Apple talk about Microsoft ripping off their ideas, but at least one of Leopard’s much-touted new features was released as part of XP – namely, Remote Desktop, integrated with MSN Messenger. MS also released their own virtual desktop implementation with XP, but it was a separate free download (part of Powertoys). And this was five years ago, remember.

    Sad fact is, idea-pinching continually goes both ways between Cupertino and Redmond, but when people are wrapped up in Steve’s Reality Distortion Field, people tend to forget that…

  7. I wouldn’t worry about it; it’s not like those independent Mac developers invented those features–most of those features come from other platforms anyway.

  8. I’m not sure I agree that any of these were ripped-off, but I do know that whatever I saw in the keynote looked much better than what is currently available.

    Did I miss something in the keynote? I don’t see how Amnesty Singles was ripped off, I didn’t see any of Amnesty Singles functionality in the keynote.

    Thanks for the good post.

  9. I don’t think virtue desktops was ripped off for spaces. I could be wrong, but this just seems to me to be an implementation of what other unix based desktop managers have had for YEARS. It’s amazing Apple took this long to implement it.

    Unless they are using the exact same UI and hot keys as Virtue, which it didn’t look like they were doing, I see this as a natural, if not late, inclusion.

  10. And, if you read me much, you know that I’m a big proponent of open source, of open standards, and open formats; I also tend to see patents and trademarks as belonging to the litigious and anti-cooperative capitalist elite who…

    Hmmm, this is why I’ve always been surprised you use OS X and not linux. I know, you’re a OS X Fanboy 😛 but a nice stable linux desktop like Ubuntu would suit you well.

    Have you tried installing Ubuntu on your laptop with BootCamp or Parallels, or tried running the Live disk?

  11. “Unlike the open source community, where developer’s names are attached to the patches and contributions that they make to a project, Apple offers no such credit, and, in turn, takes all the glory.”

    Interestingly, Walt Disney used to do this on his original films. In the credits, it was Walt himself who took all the credit for the animations etc.

    Ok, its just mildly interesting.

  12. HELLO! Back in the early 90’s when Apple wanted to roll a shareware app into the OS they did the morally correct thing and PURCHASED the app.


    # a clock in the menu bar (based on the free “SuperClock” control panel by Steve Christensen)
    # an Apple menu item called Stickies (formerly a third-party application called “PasteIt Notes”) which provided virtual Post-It Notes
    # WindowShade (another former shareware control panel which provided the ability to condense a window down to its title bar)

  13. We thought that the iCal server announcement would kill our first product SyncBridge ( However, Apple have actually given us the advantage by releasing the server as open source. Now we can give people calendar sharing in Tiger, and migrate them as they move to Leopard – we can also allow for mixed Tiger/Leopard environments, and the server can run on Linux or FreeBSD.

    When we first saw the announcement, we were totally gutted though 😦 One good side effect of that was we came up with three new product ideas!

  14. Ok Chris, Maybe I’d buy your argument for Quicksilver, as it’s a truly unique application and does make OS X awesome. [it was one of the things I missed when giving up on OS X]. 🙂

    But to worry about people who develop things such as “Virtual Desktops” for OS X? I mean come on, Linux/Unix has had this feature for eons…. it’s not a huge leap to think that one day, Apple would get a clue and include it natively.

    Same goes for the other features.

    I do see and understand what you are saying. That Apple, if they aren’t going to be opensource, needs to find some way to reward developers it “borrows” from. If nothing else, giving credit , where it’s due. The only problem with this is, if it truly is a unique idea, I can see giving someone credit, without paying for the idea or something could lead to hefty legal fees. 🙂

    Peace, love and bananas.

  15. These comments are hilarious. When MS does this kind of thing you guys would be all up in their face, anti-trust bla bla bla. Somehow Apple gets a pass on this stuff. Maybe because they are still the ‘little guy’. But what happens if Macs take over? All of the sudden they have the monopoly. I look forward to the reactions when that happens.

  16. Chris,

    Are you saying you would be ok with the whole thing if apple gave *credit* to the developers they are putting out of business? Beisdes, just because something is included doesn’t mean I can’t still use the better tool that might not be bundled with the OS. Safari is included with OSX, but I still have flock installed…

  17. Puh-lease. What a bunch of whining. These are hardly original ideas and Apple’s implementations are bound to be better and more tightly integrated with the OS. I suppose Apple should only put in features that no one has ever heard of before in any form?

  18. As if you all invented this :/ Read what ChatFX developer said in his blog…

    We have been contacted by many people and press who are bitter against Apple about what they see as this copying. That is why we created this response.First if you have not seen it check out ChatFX here.

    Is it another case of Watson/Sherlock or Konfabulator/Dashboard or Windows/Mac?
    Naw, we don’t think so. These aren’t the days of Doug Engelbart inventing the mouse and desktop metaphors totally on his own. We are all connected by the net, articles, journals, sample code, and chat. Lots of brilliant minds all exchanging concepts. Like the independent creation of similar songs at the same time it is often hard to say where an idea originated. We are all connected, we stand on each others shoulders. In our case we had a leg up in creating what we did through the use of numerous Apple technologies that we put together in a creative way. ChatFX relies on Quartz Composer which is brilliant and created by Pierre-Olivier Latour, Apple gives it out free to developers. Also iChat was necessary and is free from Apple and part of the OS. We may have inspired Apple but Apple definitely inspired us.”

  19. Re: Killing off small developers…

    That’s a load of crap. First of all, Leopard won’t even be out until next srping, about nine months away. Secondly, even after Leopard is released there will still be millions of computers using Tiger. Anything written for Tiger will still work for Tiger even after Leopard is released. It may even help small developers. Those still using Tiger that want some of the “built-in” features of Leopard, will turn to these 3rd-party utilities and applications to get the same functionality. True, eventually their target audience will dwindle to pointless numbers, but if that developer hasn’t moved on by that time, well then they die off. That’s natural progression.

    Re: claims of copying…

    Also to claim that Apple has copied all these other ideas and features from others, is just silly. Just because Apple finally decided to “build-in” virtual desktops to their window manager doesn’t mean it was copied from someone else. It’s a feature that has been inherit on Unix windowing systems for a long time. …Time Machine is nothing more than a backup/restore utility that is unique in it’s implementation and interaction. The basic idea of backing up data has been around a long time as well. So is screen sharing… been around a long time on all systems; Timbuktu for Mac was around more than 15 years ago, same with pcAnywhere. It’s in Tiger now and has been available as VNC and all platforms. Apple is simply building into it’s chat system, which makes a lot of sense.

    If you watched the keynote video, you would clearly see all the things they poke fun of at Microsoft, are not basic “ideas” but of how it’s implemented. The comparison between iCal and Windows Calendar is uncanny, even down the the default color scheme. Tactile concepts and the over all feel of the GUI are also blatant attempts at duplicating what is offered on OS X and a few other GUI’s.

  20. Most of the apps you have listed in this article as being copied are available as freeware, and those that do charge a licence fee often have a freeware alternative. Most people won’t pay for a product when there is a viable (if not superior) option available for free. There is no business in freeware. Nothing is lost if nothing is gained, with the exception of credit due, which I agree Apple should take care of it’s supporters that way (even monetarily if necessary).

    None of that should stop an independent developer from innovating, however. Firefox, Dragthing, Freeway Express, Snapz Pro… All products that are still very popular despite Apple’s direct competition or implementation of similar features into the OS.

    Make a better product. Those people looking for freeware will pay for a better product. Making yourself better is part of competition. That’s the reason you’re on an Apple and not a Microsoft infested mess of wires. Apple isn’t trying to compete with it’s own community. It has enough on it’s plate dealing with the 95% of the market trying to take it down.

    But, you are right, they should give credit. And money wouldn’t hurt.

  21. It’s important that in this conversation, I’m not saying that Apple shouldn’t implement new features. I’m only suggesting that they give more props to the braintrust that is their community — a few design awards are no consolation for the folks whose software gets absorbed into the operating system… especially since most of those awards go to folks who’s apps can stay afloat on their own.

    Where credit’s been earned, it should be noted. Copying will continue to happen, and that’s a good thing… don’t forget that I’m all about Creative Commons. But CC also builds in a mechanism for creators to be given credit, even if not monetarily. And I think that is pretty much the foundation of my argument.

  22. Virtue Desktop is a free app, it ain’t going to hurt the developer. In fact, the developer was taking away money from You Desktops and other commercial ‘desktop’ apps like CodeTek, but you don’t complain about that. The implementation by Apple is the best of all of them. You Desktops came pretty close to the best implementation, but Apple’s is tied into the system, so all apps have to behave well with it, so naturally, it is the best way to go, no one can do it better than they.

  23. PREACH ON!

    *right fist up in air, head bowed down*

    though, with the so-called-canrries moving on to *nix styled systems. the last bastion of computing is hardware. it’s great that we all have MOFNG hot laptops, but i wonder when will there be a time when we see the creation of OS hardware.

  24. You complain but don’t offer an alternative. What do you suggest Apple do? Pay off existing developers? Buy their crappy software and re-write it anyway? Not add the features?

  25. Actually, I did make a proposal: at the very least, to give credit or a hat tip to those who may have influenced or inspired the features, understanind that not everyone will get credit, but that it’s important to Apple to highlight, publicly, the contributions of its community members.

  26. Well, I wrote Mail2iCal(ToDo) since I wanted the functionality. After I used it for a while, I just thought, “hey, this might be useful to other users as well”, so I published it for free on the nets. Feedback and suggestions from other users made me a better programmer, plus searching for kleinware in Google gives me the first hit, without any SEO from my part. Now, Apple decided to integrate part of the functionality into Mail. This is great news, since Apple usually implements features very elegantly. Finally, I have a working solution without hacking one myself. Though I would have liked it, if Apple had given me credit, I must admit it is a fairly obvious idea.

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