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iOS 8 rips off a lot of ideas from Google. Good for Apple.

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Ars Technica has a great post showing all the ways that Apple's new iPhone operating system, iOS 8, has borrowed concepts from Google's Android operating system:

  • Android has long offered a feature where the keyboard would offer suggestions for the next word to type. Apple has added a version of this feature in iOS 8. Apple has also added support for third-party keyboards, a feature Android has had for years.
  • For years, Android has had a sophisticated system for inter-app communication. For example, if you were in a photo-editing app, you could call up a list of actions you could do with that photo, like sharing it on Twitter or converting it to a PDF. Apple has introduced a limited version of this feature in iOS 8.
  • Some Android phones have an always-on listening feature. You can say "OK Google" from across the room and the phone will wake up and start listening for commands. In iOS 8, Apple added the ability for the iPhone to be constantly listening for the prompt "Hey Siri."
  • Android has a feature called "notification actions," which allows apps to add buttons to a notification so users can handle them with a single tap. iOS 8 adds a souped-up version of this feature that adds a text box for typing out a response to a message.
  • Since 2010, Google's app store has allowed developers to embed videos in its app listings. Now Apple's app store will have this feature too.
  • Android has long supported widgets, small items on the desktop or in the notification center that allow users to check sports scores, turn on wifi, and perform other simple tasks. Apple will finally add support for third-party widgets to iOS 8.

The interesting thing about this is that for the last few years, Apple has been suing Android vendors, arguing that key Android features infringe Apple's patents. The features Apple was suing over, like "slide to unlock" and "data detectors," don't seem much more innovative than the ones Apple appears to have copied from Android here. But Apple believes they're entitled to billions of dollars for these inventions.

I don't know if Google has patented the features Apple has added to iOS 8 — if they have, the applications are probably still being processed by the patent office. But it would be a huge waste of resources to have another big round of lawsuits over these innovations.

The reality is that there are only so many ways to design a user-interface, especially on a space-constrained smartphone. When one company discovers an improvement for its smartphone interface, it's a good thing that rivals quickly copy the improvement. That ensures that every smartphone has all the best features available, not just those that the company behind the phone happened to invent first.

And over time, these things tend to balance out: Google copied Apple more in the early years because Apple got to the smartphone market first. But being first to market was a huge advantage in its own right — Apple sold millions of iPhones before Google was able to get its own multi-touch OS into the market. Now Android is ahead in some respects and Apple is playing catchup.

Luckily, Google and Apple have taken a "copy now, litigate later" approach, ensuring that the pace of progress isn't slowed down by patent concerns. Eventually, the companies behind the major smartphone platforms — Apple, Google, and Microsoft — will probably sign cross-licensing deals giving each other permission to use their patented user interface innovations. But that will only happen after hundreds of millions of dollars have been wasted on pointless litigation. It would have saved everyone a lot of trouble if the courts had ruled this kind of software innovation wasn't eligible for patent protection in the first place.