Windows Vista’s "Aero" interface celebrated translucence to enhance the OS’s razzle dazzle effects.

iOS 7 uses transparency in an almost opposite manner, creating a subtle celebration of depth amidst flatness.

Live wallpapers were Android’s early claim to fame.

Not only does Apple channel the idea with their newly animated weather app, the home screen creates a dynamically shifting, parallax effect to feel more alive.

The Chromebook is Google’s cloud-based computer. It’s basically a means to get into your Google Docs and other online files.

Some of Apple’s latest apps, like iWork and iBooks, are really just a window wrapping itself around cloud content.

Co.Design

5 Ideas Apple Gleefully Stole From Google, Twitter, and Microsoft

If iOS 7 and OS X Mavericks look a bit familiar, well, there are at least five good reasons for that. Apple lifted them from other innovators, then made them slightly better.

Apple’s WWDC keynote was largely about catching up. Fix iCloud. Release a subscription music service. And ditch all the skeuomorphism that was making them look hokey next to their contemporaries.

For those who’ve been following the minutiae of interface design, you’ll see that many of their ideas, from OS X Maverick to iOS 7 are actually old, or at the very least familiar. You can’t look at Apple’s latest software without seeing the influence of Windows 8, Android, and yes, even Chromebooks. But as Steve Jobs once famously paraphrased (and the tech press has mentioned way too often), “Good artists borrow, great artists steal.” Here’s some of what Apple stole in their latest software updates and, in many cases, made better:

Transparency

Origin: Windows Vista “Aero”

The first thing you notice when looking at iOS 7 is the flatness. The home screen’s icons lack a plastic sheen. iMessage’s chat bubbles are no longer bubbly. And each button has been reconsidered with a 2-D presence.

But the second thing you’ll notice are the liberal plays on transparency. Menus like Command Center look like typography has been printed directly on a pane of glass. Meanwhile, your desktop or app blurs away in the background--still there, just no longer noticeable.

It’s a trick that we originally saw in Aero, the Windows Vista transparent interface that was notorious for requiring powerful graphics cards (many of us had to turn it off to run Windows at all). But there is a big difference in implementation. Whereas Microsoft used transparency to sell us on the grandeur of 3-D, Apple is using it to subtly highlight the otherwise hidden depth of its “flat” interface. The effect is humanizing, as a photo of a friend or child hides below, tempering the graphic minimalism.

Live Wallpapers

Origin: Android

When Android came on the scene, it was incredibly ugly--except for one stunning feature known as live wallpapers. They were actually a poor design choice, generally clashing with icons and distracting your eye from the UI (do you really want a cartoon playing under a stagnant app?). Plus, they further decimated Android’s already lousy battery life.

Today, Apple isn’t embracing a fully animated background with iOS 7, but it is lifting the detailed weather screens that were probably the live wallpaper’s greatest hallmark. More importantly, though, Apple is also animating the homepage in a far subtler way: parallax viewing. As the angle of the phone changes in your hand, the image shifts so you can actually look around and under icons. With live wallpapers, Google wanted your desktop to feel alive. With iOS 7’s responsive, parallax home screen, the iPhone just might.

Desktop Cloud Apps

Origin: Chromebooks

Since Google I/O, I’ve been living with (and sometimes cursing at) the Google Chromebook they handed me after the keynote. I’m convinced it’s actually a model of computing to come, even if its browser and cloud-based apps have gotten a lot of flack.

Moving on to OS X Mavericks, the unpopular Chromebook’s influence is clear. Apple is shifting apps like iWork to a browser-based panel, where every change you make is automatically synced in the cloud. You can even open iWork on a PC and, because of this setup, experience the same iWork UI as you have on your Mac.

Like a car company reshaping the lines of its iconic sports car over five to ten years, Apple is coyly easing us into the app as a cloud wrapper, while solving one of Apple’s greatest problems today: How to sync a user’s apps across desktops and mobiles. Now, is that the right approach for a design leader? I don’t know. But it is the proven way for a big company to make big changes without raising big blowback from consumers.

Card Multitasking

Origin: Palm

The Palm Pre was the best phone that nobody bought. And it infamously recruited many of Apple’s own designers and engineers to build it--who, in turn, were eager to fix many issues with the old iOS. The most beloved fix in the Pre was likely its approach to multitasking, which depicted apps as a series of cards that you could flick through, left to right.

Truth be told, this is probably iOS’s most blatant design lift (though the Mail app’s swiping gestures are a close second), and Apple didn’t necessarily inject so much of its own identity that it feels remade. But who cares? What you see here is simply the best way anyone has ever devised to multitask on a phone. I’d rather see the Pre channeled posthumously than lose this logical, tactile piece of UI forever.

Tags And Tabs

Origin: Many

Tags, currently popularized by Twitter "hash" variety (originating in IRC), and tabbed browsing (with old origins but popularized by Opera and Firefox) are vastly different UI elements, but they were both born with the same intent: In the internet age, how do you enable a person to sort through a gluttony of information when they’ve bitten off more than they can possibly chew?

By adding tags to sort through OS X’s Finder, and by implementing tabs to organize their own desktop apps, Apple has adopted two of the most subtly powerful tools of using the Internet for the desktop. When you consider the fact that cloud apps are only becoming more important to Apple (see above), it’s clear that Apple is laying the scaffolding for its own Chromebook that consumers may adore as much as a Macbook.

But In Design, Stealing Is A Good Thing

It’s easy to read an article like this one and villainize Apple. (After all, this is the company that patented some of its fundamental gestures like pinch-to-zoom.) But to do so misses out on the greater narrative at play.

Truth be told, Apple is rarely first to market with any technological trick. Heck, it even stole the GUI from Xerox! What Apple has excelled at for decades is the ability to lift all the right parts of all the right design and place them all in the right places. Apple will sell us on Chromebooks, in their own way, just like it convinced us that a battery-powered hard drive was the greatest portable music player ever invented. Because in Apple’s hands, discrete etudes of design can become product symphony.

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58 Comments

  • Design-kink

    I agree good design is about arranging the elements (which don't have to all be original elements). As a Mac desktop user, I went with Android years ago to "keep it fresh". The constant bickering in court is such a yawn, I'd rather they just get on with designing.

  • Raphael

    Good article!
    But in my opinion some parts of this article and some comments are short-sighted, even pathetic in a way.

    Not to offend anybody, but amlost none of those mentioned "stolen" parts are actually able to be even viewed stolen.
    Transparency - one of the topics in this article, is a a graphical element, a way of styling, not something owned by someone. And in comparison, Apple had that exact blurred, transparent parts way ahead of Windows 7. If you look close to Quick Look modals, folders in dock (when expanded into contextual modals), the menu bar ... all those feature both transparency, even combined with blurred backgrounds.
    Windows 7 did not steal that from apple - it was merely inspired by it if at all...
    If you want to achive a window-look there isn't much choice than something "glassy".

    It's a difference whether you follow best practise, or bluntly copy a design.
    Android and Windows Phone, the first smart phones which followed the iPhone (which was - except from palm devices which couldn't take calls - the first smart phone ever), did copy a lot of things rather than being inspired. Just because what the iPhone represented was something everyone wanted to have and no one knew how to do that. It was a question of participating in a market and following todays standards, rather than suffering from major market loss.

    What Samsung did in some parts was in a way similar. Following a market, copying elements which seemed to be best practise etc. - not considering some parts may actually be patented and therefore violating the original source's rights.

    One has to understand the market and thing a bit out of the box ...
    There are a lot of other more obvious parts Apple actually stole from foreign designs with the new iOS7.
    But consider this: Apple's design lab is most times working on products now, which are released 3 to 7 years later. If you say they are doing "new" things in a matter of a year, you're wrong ...

  • Boží Ďábel

    Totally right, everyone has their inspiration. Its a matter who put them all together into a single unit, or simply Apple did it.

  • Larryfriedman

    Aside from the swipe up to kill, the card multitasking looks like Safari pages on the first iPhone, and if Apple stole Command Center from Google, the Google stole it from SBSettings.

  • Davian Chenault Pfeiff

    Definitely not a company, but, it had some ground. It was made for iDevices, just wasn't implented by Apple. I think Apple is completely in the right using this.

  • Brailleyard

    Like most Apple fanboys, i'll protect them without impunity.
    But they way they just murdered those guys at "Mailbox" especially after I waited a month to finally gain access to their app?

    Col'-bludded.

    (Here's hoping the mailbox team can find something newer than their already NEW swipe to archive/trash/save/delay email system.

  • John Kneeland

    I would not have as much of a problem with Apple "borrowing" UI bits from other companies if they hadn't spent the last few years aggressively suing any company they felt was "borrowing" UI bits from them.

  • Jaochoui

    There are bits, and there are "bits", which really are large quantities. If you are referring to a major company, that company didn't just borrow a little.

  • datasmog

    Apple didn't steal the GUI from Zerox Parc. It was given to them on the understanding they would develop a useable interface for a computer. Xerox

  • BongBong

    As the Samsung and Google fanboys of the world have been essentially saying, "it's OK to steal"... Guess what, kids? You've just been Appled. Love it.

  • redheadednomad

    Hey BONGBONG  - is your tinfoil hat comfortable? People like you and their zeal for overpriced toys are what keeps Apple afloat despite their utter inability to innovate.Aside from a few shiny new icons, Apple has released nothing of note in the Mobile sphere this year. Meanwhile, Google continues to make improvements to it's suite of applications, and is poised to release the next iteration of Android on multiple new devices (plus, Nexus 4 and Samsung's Galaxy S4 are already pissing all over the hipster toy).
    Stick with your wacky ideas on "innovation" - Android users will continue to enjoy cutting-edge hardware and software, laughing at your squealing accusations of "theft" 

  • Daniel Dogeanu

    What disturbs me the most about Apple is the fact that after they steal designs and features from others, they then patent it as their own and sue the other guys for infringing patents.