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

David Pogue
Tech Critic

You think people get riled up about politics and religion? Try insulting someone’s 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.

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.

Now then. According to the law, you can’t 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 Mac’s 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? What’s 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.

(The late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs certainly 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. “I’m going to destroy Android, because it’s a stolen product. I’m 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, that’d mean months of tedious effort. But think of the payoff! For the first time ever, we’d know. We’d see which company should hang its head in ripoff shame.

You can probably see where this is going. That’s how I spent my spring.

The methodology

First, I made up a list of every major feature that’s 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 iPhone’s debut in 2007.

Now, a few notes on this project’s limitations:

  • I’ve 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 (Apple’s iOS vs. Google’s Android) and hardware features (Apple’s iPhone vs. Samsung’s Galaxy S series).
  • Not all features get stolen. Nobody ever copied Apple’s Force Touch screen idea (detects how hard you’re pressing) or its Emergency SOS siren (to use when you’re 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 don’t appear here.
  • Also not included: Features that existed before the smartphone era, like downloadable ringtones. They weren’t Apple’s, Samsung’s, or Google’s ideas in the first place.

Even with all of this research and documentation, I’m sure there will be much to argue about. Does Samsung’s easily fooled face recognition get credit for being first, when Apple’s later implementation, which uses depth cameras that can’t 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?

In all three cases, I’ve answered “yes” as I built this study. As long as it’s an even playing field—the same rules apply to all three companies—the 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 Android’s 10 (and Samsung’s 1).

Screen

The screen is the first thing you notice when you turn on a phone—how 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, too—Apple finally adopted this stunning screen technology in the iPhone X.

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

Text & Voice

Smartphones don’t 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 Apple’s introduction of Siri (even though Apple didn’t create Siri in-house), and Google’s introduction of a hands-free, voice-triggered assistant (“OK Google—what’s the weather?”).

Google wins this one: Android 6, Apple 5.

Camera

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 didn’t have a flash, didn’t have a front-facing camera, and couldn’t even record video. How did we live?

This time, the innovation rate is nearly tied: Apple 6, Android 6, and Samsung 5.

Phone

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 didn’t have stereo speakers, GPS chips, and wireless charging, and weren’t 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.

Internet

These days, the internet is the whole point, isn’t it? We expect our phones to show us websites and emails exactly as they’d appear on our laptops and desktops, full of formatting, photos, and videos. All of the features listed here are standard on smartphones—but somebody originally dreamed each of them up.

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

 

Security

“Security” means protection for both the physical phone—when you leave it somewhere, or when it gets stolen—and for its contents. (Activation lock—the iOS feature that makes it impossible to erase a stolen phone without the owner’s Apple ID credentials—was single-handedly responsible for plummeting iPhone thefts around the world. Why bother stealing a phone if you can’t erase it and resell it?)

The tally here: Apple brought forth three out of four of these breakthroughs.

 

Wireless

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, who’s 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. Google’s 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 a Follower in the spreadsheet, you discover that Apple also seems to have stolen the most ideas. In part, that’s because I’m pitting Apple against Google/Samsung (its phones use Google’s software). As a result, no feature ever lists Google and Samsung as innovator+follower, or vice versa; they’re always a single team.

This setup gives Apple an advantage, because it has two companies to steal from—but also a disadvantage, since it’s two-on-one.

Of course, in the end, none of this tabulation really matters. The real conclusion of this massive research exercise is this: whoever makes your favorite phone steals ideas. They all do—always have, always will. It’s how the business 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 else’s idea. And Keeping Up with the Joneses is not the recipe for creating an original, differentiated phone that reflects your company’s philosophy and values.

If you’re among those who grow indignant when the phone you despise shows up with a feature copied from the one you love, maybe it’s time to accept the marketplace reality that everybody rips off ideas.

If nothing else, you’ll have a lot more time to debate politics and religion.

David Pogue, tech columnist for Yahoo Finance, welcomes comments below. On the web, he’s davidpogue.com. On Twitter, he’s @pogue. On email, he’s poguester@yahoo.com. You can sign up to get his stuff by email, here.  

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