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Apple and Google Just Can’t Stop Copying Each Other

(Photo: Rob Pegoraro/Yahoo Tech)

Google introduced two new Android phones today, and some of its features may look familiar to iPhone users. You know what else should look familiar? These two companies borrowing each others’ ideas.

Today’s introduction of the Nexus 5X and Nexus 6P—each sporting an iPhone-esque fingerprint sensor and iOS-style rules for how apps can use your data—represents only the latest installment in a long history of Apple and Google adopting each others’ better ideas.

Related: Google Unveils 2 New Smartphones, Nexus 5X and Nexus 6P

It’s a safe bet Apple will return the favor in some way when it ships iOS 10 and then an iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus next fall.

The interface in the mirror

Apple and Google’s back-and-forth copying has never been more obvious than in the increasingly similar look and feel of their user interfaces.

Take multitasking: Years of fierce competition have led both Android and iOS to present the apps running on your handset as a series of cards you flip through vertically (Android) or horizontally (iOS); to close one, simply swipe it out of that stack.

Which company copied this design? Both: The long-deceased Palm’s webOS displayed open apps as a series of cards first

Notifications in each mobile OS increasingly look alike too. Here’s a case where Apple followed Google — which I have no problem with, except that Apple hasn’t finished the job by letting you dismiss all open notifications with one swipe, as you can with Android.

Android fans can point out that Google’s support for desktop widgets has no parallel in iOS—but on an iPhone’s home screen, 3D Touch provides something remarkably similar, if available on a far smaller range of devices.

App stores and their rules

Back in 2008, there was a clear contrast between the iOS App Store and the software shop Google then called the Android Market: Apple strictly regulated the selection according to its own (undocumented) tastes, while Google left things wide open.

Things have changed a bit since. Apple’s App Store reviewers remain as control-freakish as ever, most recently yanking an app that sent push notifications of new drone strikes worldwide. But Google has rethought how open its market — now named the Play Store — needs to be.

Last winter, Google began having humans review every Play Store submission. More recently, the company reserved the right to reject apps that it sees as “capitalizing on or lacking reasonable sensitivity towards a natural disaster, atrocity, conflict, death, or other tragic event.”

Google does, however, still let you download apps from markets outside the Play Store. I’m glad that option’s there, but I also recognize the potential danger of malware-infected apps — which is why I haven’t touched that option in months.

But Apple’s locked-down App Store also isn’t immune to that risk: Hackers recently persuaded iOS developers to download a poisoned version of its own Xcode development toolkit, and App Store reviewers didn’t catch the resulting compromised versions of apps until it was too late.

The security remains the same

The “Nexus Imprint” fingerprint scanner on the Nexus 5X and 6P is an obvious imitation of Apple’s Touch ID, but also a sensible one (assuming it works reliably). While Google has always offered you more ways to unlock your Android phone than Apple does, fingerprint login is particularly simple.

Other Android vendors like Samsung took the hint first, and then Google added support for fingerprint authentication right into the new 6.0, aka “Marshmallow,” release of Android.

Google also copied Apple when it dumped its old method of policing an app’s access to your data—a one-time, all-or-nothing request when you install it. Under Google’s new, Apple-esque regime, apps must ask the first time they want to use the phone’s camera or look at your schedule or whatever, and you can revoke that permission afterwards.

Twin sales models

Remember when Google first jumped into the smartphone market with a bold bid to sell the Nexus One direct to customers? You’d buy the phone unlocked and it would be your property, freeing you to hop from service to service as you saw fit (subject to any service contracts you entered).

But technical obstacles limited the Nexus One to AT&T and T-Mobile, and the Nexus One barely survived half a year.

Five years later, with wireless service rates divorced from the purchase price of the phone and a bounty of phones that can work with any carrier, Apple can stage a bold Googlesque bid to sell iPhones direct to customers. Under its iPhone Upgrade Program, you buy the phone unlocked and it’s your property, freeing you to hop from service to service as you see fit.

Apple’s upgrade program bundles its AppleCare+ extended warranty. In what I’m sure is a complete coincidence, today’s Google news includes a Nexus Protect extended warranty for sale from the company.

Great minds steal alike 

Is it a bad idea to take inspiration from the competition to make your own products better? Steve Jobs himself couldn’t quite agree, saying in 1996 that “we have always been shameless about stealing great ideas” but then launching an extended crusade of patent-infringement litigation that has yet to exile any notable Android features from the market.

Apple no longer spends as much time harrumphing about stolen property as it did under Jobs. Maybe it’s recognized that smartphones everywhere are on a process of convergent evolution? As an excellent little documentary about the role of combination in creativity teaches us: Everything is a remix.

And at the same time, you can still find plenty of differences between iOS and Android—starting with Apple’s increasing emphasis on privacy as a core product. Google, what’s your response to that?

Email Rob at rob@robpegoraro.com; follow him on Twitter at @robpegoraro.