by Shane O'Neill

Idea Thieves: Why It’s OK for Tech’s Elite to Steal

May 09, 20114 mins
Data Center

Tech's top companies are ripping each other off -- not that there's anything wrong with that. So who's robbing who?

Apple CEO Steve Jobs famously said in an interview back in the 1994, “good artists copy, great artists steal.”

It’s not an original line. Jobs was quoting artist Pablo Picasso (the exact quote is, allegedly, “Bad artists copy. Good artists steal”).

In that same ’94 interview, Jobs admits that Apple “has always been shameless about stealing great ideas.” He’s perfectly fine with that as long as the ideas, a) come from the best things that humans have done and b) the ideas are sent through a blender and given a fresh identity, your identity.

Stealing and copying happens in every part of culture: entertainment, media, technology, politics, business. In most cases, unimaginative copying trumps clever theft, from unwatchable Hollywood remakes of older movies to bland political candidates who repeat the same platitudes of those who ran before them. Copying is easier. You just have to color between the lines.

Stealing, on the other hand, is hard. You have to pull many pieces together, camouflage whatever it is you stole, and then integrate the stolen goods with your own vision so that the finished product is fresh yet vaguely familiar. Companies that steal well usually create a new and exciting experience for the user. Google’s Android-based smartphones are a good example, as is Microsoft’s Bing search engine.

Among tech’s heavy hitters, ideas and technologies are bouncing around like pinballs these days, and everybody is lifting from everybody else, with varying degrees of success. But still, it’s quite reasonable to snatch a technology or a concept and make it your own, and perhaps make it better. After all, there are only so many brilliant ideas to go around.

Let’s break down who’s robbing who:

Google: Lately Google has had to do a little creative theft to keep up in certain markets, from following Apple’s iPhone and iPad with their Android-based phones and tablets to emulating Facebook with the Google +1 button and the failed Google Wave. Google has stolen well from Apple (Android is now the leading smartphone OS), but is merely copying Facebook, so far.

Facebook: It’s not uncommon for two companies to copy and steal from each other. Facebook has lifted from Google by selling contextual ads on its pages and partnering with Microsoft’s Bing to integrate more search features within Facebook. It’s not a bad steal because Facebook is trying to make search more social. It’s too soon to tell if this is really working though.

Amazon: Amazon’s recent thefts have come from Apple with the Amazon Cloud Drive music service (iTunes), Amazon Appstore (the Apple App Store) and designing the Kindle to look more like an iPad. But Amazon made its music service a Web-based streaming service, something iTunes is not. Thus elevating it from copy status to theft status.

Apple: True to Jobs’ 17-year-old comments, Apple does snatch and grab sometimes. It has lifted from Twitter and Facebook with Ping, a music-oriented social network rolled into iTunes. If Apple ever makes iTunes We-based it will be accused of copying Amazon’s streaming music service. Rather ironic, no?

RIM: Really isn’t a big copier or stealer (although its Storm and Torch touch-screen phones are definitely iPhone-esque). But with the way things are going for RIM, it should start stealing more.

Twitter: It’s only a matter of time before Twitter takes a page from Facebook and, more so Google, by selling ads beside tweets or at least somewhere on Twitter. This company has to makes money somehow.

Microsoft: You name the company and Microsoft has probably copied them, and usually in a clumsy way. Whether it’s Mac OS design, Mozilla’s Firefox browser features or Google Apps, Microsoft likes to reach out and steal from someone. Nonetheless, Bing and Windows Phone 7 are impressive recent thefts because both have a unique look and feel. However, if I wanted to hire bank robbers, Microsoft would not get the call.

Shane O’Neill covers Microsoft, Windows, Operating Systems, Productivity Apps and Online Services for Follow Shane on Twitter @smoneill. Follow everything from on Twitter @CIOonline and on Facebook. Email Shane at