Steve Jobs on Google’s artistry

Let me preface this post by saying that I think Steve Jobs was a genius. A really brilliant, far-seeing, hard-working creative master. Many of the things that I value in life owe a lot to him. But he made some bad calls, and the rest of this post is about one in particular. (I will have to resist referring to him as “Steve”, as I have usually done.)

According to news accounts of his authorized biography, Jobs was absolutely furious at Google for “stealing” Apple’s product when they produced their own smartphone. (I’ve been an elitist Mac user for years, but when it finally came time for me to buy a smartphone I bought an Android phone. I just like it better.) And indeed, the Google phone wouldn’t exist without the iPhone’s having created the standard for functionality and design. But “stealing”? Really?

While many observers had long assumed that Apple, riding high on the success of the iPhone, had a mostly dispassionate and detached view of Google’s smartphone operating system, Isaacson reveals that exactly the opposite was true. The book quotes Jobs as saying, “I will spend my last dying breath if I need to, and I will spend every penny of Apple’s $40 billion in the bank, to right this wrong… I’m going to destroy Android, because it’s a stolen product. I’m willing to go thermonuclear war on this.”

And when Jobs met with the executives at Google to discuss the matter directly, he apparently went even further in expressing his distaste for Android, telling them, “I don’t want your money. If you offer me $5 billion, I won’t want it. I’ve got plenty of money. I want you to stop using our ideas in Android, that’s all I want.” According to the author, the meeting did little to cool tensions between the two companies.

“Good artists copy, great artists steal.” That’s a quote from great artist…Steve Jobs. Apple is credited with the first GUI for personal computers, but this idea came from Xerox PARC. Several years later, Apple sued Microsoft for copyright violation for taking the “look and feel” of the Apple GUI for the Microsoft GUI. Interestingly, Xerox sued Apple on the same grounds in the middle of Apple’s lawsuit. (As it turns out, PARC’s claims were dismissed.) And not just the GUI, the mouse as well came from PARC.

So it seems a little hypocritical of Jobs to make this allegation. But with copyright the creator of an idea or product doesn’t always get to be the one with a legal right to it, and since Apple has legal rights maybe that’s what mattered to him. Not that Google was essentially following his own advice. And certainly not that “intellectual property” is a bad joke that leads precisely to these kinds of ridiculous disputes.

What got me thinking about this post in the first place was speculating about what would have happened if he hadn’t died early. He positively stated that he was willing “to go thermonuclear war” to destroy Google. As it is, I think we consumers are a lot better off having the system that prevails right now in smartphones when compared to any possible post-“thermonuclear war” scenario. Not to mention that—while copyright law has a lot of strange ins and outs that I’m not expert in—I have trouble believing Apple would have won a significant victory over Google in such a conflict. On top of that, both sides would be in much worse financial positions when the dust settled. I hate to think this way, but if Jobs had to die early, perhaps it’s better that he did before he tried to take down the Android.

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