By Michael Fisher | June 13, 2012 12:15 PM
“They copied that from the iPhone!”
It’s become a familiar refrain in the days after a product announcement from Google or Microsoft. Ornery iOS fans or other detractors rise out of the woodwork, pointing out every feature offered in the new Android or Windows Phone version that “was lifted straight from the iPhone!” This was a lot easier back in the days of iPhone 1.0, when the device’s then-groundbreaking UI elements could only be found on Apple’s new darling. When Android, then Windows Phone came out with swipe-able homescreens, kinetic scrolling, and pinch-to-zoom, it was pretty easy to point a finger at them and scream “copy cat!” like someone you’d just found looking over your shoulder on a second-grade math quiz.
As time went on, though, Apple made a predictable move, one that’s become part of its signature style: it put innovation on the back burner and focused on implementing pre-existing features better. This resulted in a very polished lineup of iOS products, but it also allowed other platforms to surpass it in new features. Android and Windows Phone started beating iOS in raw functionality, each bringing new and exciting ideas to the user experience while Apple polished older features.
The natural result was a reversal, as Apple began poaching ideas from its competitors. Nearly every example of this practice is debatable -just visit any mobile-tech forum to see said debates in action- but probably the most flagrant is Apple’s inclusion of Notification Center in iOS 5. Though it traces its roots more to an adapted third-party enhancement for jailbroken iPhones, its “spiritual lineage” is clear.
This rampant “borrowing” of ideas is common across many industries, and the consequences are often litigious in nature. These companies are very aware of how much is being appropriated from previous versions of their products, and they often sue one another based on their respective patent portfolios. It’s a pretty exciting landscape.
Recently, though, the pace of that idea-borrowing has slowed. Maybe it’s because there aren’t as many features being announced, but I don’t think that’s it. Maybe all the stuff suitable for copying has already been lifted, and independent innovation is the only way forward. I don’t think that’s it either, though. Maybe everyone’s tired of getting sued. Whatever the reason, we’re seeing less of it with the latest round of updates to popular platforms.
That’s especially true with Apple’s iOS 6, which will bring over 200 new features to iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch devices. You’d think in all that, we’d be able to find more examples of copycattery, and our own Adam Z. Lein anticipated a few bits last week. But much of the new stuff is either original or extrapolated from third-party apps.
That said, there are a few familiar things which caught my eye.
Do Not Disturb & Call-Message Reply
The iPhone’s “Phone” application has remained largely unchanged since 2007, so it’s nice to see some enhancements to this bit of core functionality. The “Do Not Disturb” feature is designed to let you get some sleep even if your night-owl friends are blowing up your spot at 3am. It silences notifications and disables the accompanying screen illumination at set hours, but preserves the notifications themselves so that when you wake up, you can see who tried calling you overnight. It also offers a feature some will welcome and others will decry: if someone really wants to get a hold of you, his or her repeated calls in a short span will “barge” through the screen of silence and cause your phone to ring.
Aside from that last bit of functionality, I’ve used this Do Not Disturb feature before; it’s not a core Android feature, but it’s built into Google Voice. Toggling Do Not Disturb results in all calls to my Google Voice number going to voicemail, and texts being held on the server side until I disable the feature.
Apple has also built in a feature I remember from years ago: an “answering-machine”-like enhancement that allows you to reply to a missed call with an SMS. This is useful if you’re in a meeting and want to advise the person whose call you just rejected why they’ve been unceremoniously dumped to voicemail, and when you might call them back. Third-party apps have provided this functionality across many platforms for years; I first used something like this on PalmOS back in 2005, and these days it’s even built into many feature phones. Sprint Nextel has expanded this feature to its Direct Connect offering, and Samsung offers it as part of its TouchWiz skin as well. Nothing new here. (Edit: This is also a core feature of Android 4.0. Thanks for the heads-up, Michael Heller!)
Safari Tab Sync
When Google released Chrome for Android ICS a few months back, I was lukewarm on the notion; I found the stock browser on my Galaxy Nexus to work reasonably well, and the lack of Flash support in Chrome was kind of annoying. But then I learned about Chrome’s ability to sync bookmarks, history, and search logs across devices, and I was immediately hooked. This was as close to a “continuous client” browser as any I’d seen. Since then, I’ve really enjoyed the convenience of synchronizing my browser sessions across desktop and mobile, and it seems Apple will be bringing something similar to iOS.
The new Safari in iOS 6 will maintain continuity across browser sessions on the iPad, iPhone, and OSX-based computers. Users will be able to start a browsing session on their computer, then leave the house and pick up right where they left off on the iPhone. It also offers unified search, not just searching the web but also displaying results from bookmarks and history.
The new Safari is a bit of a soup of lifted features: it mirrors what HP was trying to do with Touch-To-Share on the Palm Pre 3 and HP Touchpad, without the hassle of actually touching devices, but in a modern sense it’s much more similar to Chrome. Full-screen browsing in landscape mode is another welcome addition, one that we’ve seen in many other browsers before.
With its new Maps application, Apple has patched a huge hole in its offerings and decidedly narrowed the feature gap between iOS and Android. In addition to vector-based graphics, more detailed 3D city models, flyover mode, and a host of other features, iOS’ new Maps offers integrated turn-by-turn navigation.
In the past, turn-by-turn navigation had to be purchased as a separate app, provided by a separate company, and requiring a separate monthly fee. The first turn-by-turn navigation software I used on a phone was a Java-based TeleNav app on a Motorola i730 in 2004, and it cost $10 per month. That pricing was typical, and the service didn’t reach huge levels of market penetration.
That all changed when Google released Google Navigation for Android 2.0 in November 2009. For the first time, a smartphone shipped with a mapping option that included turn-by-turn navigation for free. It quickly became one of Android’s stand-out offerings, one of the first features Google could point to as being truly superior to Apple’s.
Other companies followed suit; most prominently, Nokia included turn-by-turn support with Nokia Drive on its Windows Phone devices. Soon, Apple was the last big kid on the block without a stock, free turn-by-turn navigation app.
Well, it took buying some cartography companies to make it happen, but Apple has finally caught back up with Google in this space. Whether the feature will live up to the mark set by Google Navigation remains to be seen, but it was an idea Apple desperately needed to duplicate, and I’m glad it did.
You Ain’t Cheatin,’ You Ain’t Tryin.’
I’m not scolding Apple for this; as I said above, this is the nature of the industry. Many of these features didn’t even start with the platforms they were “lifted” from; they’ve been stolen and repackaged and redistributed across new ecosystems like a gift nobody wants at the office holiday party.
It’ll be interesting to see, as we edge closer to iOS 6′s release, how many other features pop up out of the woodwork that we’ve seen before. If the past is any indication, though, we can count on Apple’s versions of these tried-and-true features to be highly polished and exceedingly functional. Well worth the price of being branded “stolen property.” But that’s just one man’s opinion.
Did we miss a “hot app” you’d like to talk about? Is there something you’d like to see Apple steal so it can do it better? Sound off in the comments below!