Apple is stolen from by just about everybody. Microsoft and other companies steal design and interface ideas from Apple’s OS X. Cell phone handset makers steal Apple’s iPhone design elements. The new tablet market is essentially Apple’s iPad plus the tablets that steal ideas from the iPad. Everybody has stolen Apple’s approach to app stores.
There’s a difference between stealing ideas and stealing intellectual property. Stealing winning general approaches to doing things like multi-touch gestures on a tablet device is good. Stealing the code to do that is bad.
Microsoft has long been accused of stealing Apple ideas in the many designs of Windows that have occurred over the years. Windows has tended to be more challenging to use than OS X over the years, and Windows products tend to be less elegant. Because of all this, Apple fans often dismiss Microsoft as a company without innovation.
In fact, the opposite is true. Microsoft’s research wing is an under-appreciated engine of invention, in my opinion. And while Microsoft fails to productize some of its best inventions, it’s also occasionally successful at implementing new ideas in real products.
I’ll go further. Apple and its customers would benefit enormously if Apple were to steal the following five key ideas from Microsoft.
1. Multi-player gaming from Xbox Live
Apple platforms historically lagged in the lucrative gaming market. But now, thanks to the iPhone, iPad and App Store, Apple now dominates gaming (measured in the number of titles available on the platform).
iOS games are great — and some of them are already multi-player. But an integrated multi-player gaming and communication system like Xbox Live would benefit the iOS as a game platform more than anything else I can think of.
Instead of wasting time trying to make music social with Ping, Apple should instead focus on making gaming social.
By offering iOS developers a standard server platform for connecting players, Apple would give iOS games a huge boost. Such a system would enable far-flung gamers to find games, play against each other, chat with each other and generally enjoy all the many benefits of Xbox live, but on iPhones and iPads.
Such a system would also enable Apple to standardize how game servers function, and optimize performance of iOS games.
In general, stealing the Xbox Live concept from Microsoft would enable Apple to sell more iPads, enable developers to sell better and more expensive games, and boost Apple app revenue as game titles become more lucrative.
2. Gesture control interface from Kinect
The new Apple TV I got for Christmas was a welcome addition to my home entertainment system. But the last thing I needed was another $#@!ing remote. My Apple TV remote is minimal and elegant, but it’s an additional remote to the three I already had. Its tiny size makes it harder to find and easier to lose, as it slips between sofa cushions. And the buttons on it are a little awkward to use; it’s very easy to press the wrong thing on the dial.
Apple is constantly trying to minimize buttons and controls. Why not get rid of the remote altogether by stealing Microsoft’s concept for gesture control on the Kinect for Xbox 360?
The Apple TV remote simply functions to navigate on-screen options, and control play, pause, stop and so on movies. I’d love to control all that with hand gestures and skip the remote.
3. Pen input from the Tablet PC
The Tablet PC platform sucks for several reasons. One of these is not that it supports pen input, but that input requires a pen. The whole flawed concept of the Tablet PC is that it’s regular Windows, plus a pen layer. The iOS multi-touch finger-input system is vastly superior, and iPad sales prove it.
However, now that iPad rules the tablet world, the addition of pen input officially controlled and sanctioned by Apple would benefit the platform in myriad ways.
Personally, I have zero interest in using a stylus for navigation or app control. I just want to use a pen, well, as a pen.
Apple’s iPad 2 roll-out emphasized a point I’ve been making from the beginning: iPad is not just a content consumption device, but it’s great for content creation as well.
Pen support would enable people to scribble notes, draw pictures and most importantly write legal signatures.
Apple should steal the pen input idea from the Tablet PC. Of course, the iOS would continue to use multi-touch for most tasks, and for interaction with the OS itself. But it should enable us to write stuff with a pen, just like in real life.
4. User interface from the Windows Media Center
Sometimes, in moments of frustration, I feel like iTunes for Windows is the single worst application ever written for the PC. All major aspects of it, from connecting files to syncing to setting up podcasts is clunky, backward and counter-intuitive. Performance is absurdly slow, taking literally seconds sometimes to respond to simple mouse clicks.
The whole thing makes no sense, because Apple is so good at interface design. Sometimes I think Apple makes the PC version of iTunes deliberately horrible to punish Windows users into switching to the Mac.
Meanwhile, Microsoft’s Windows Media Center is vastly superior in every way to iTunes, from interface to performance.
Of course, Media Center exists for an entirely different purpose than iTunes — it’s really designed for using a Windows PC as an Apple TV type device. And for that, Apple TV is better.
But the ugly, clunky, non-intuitive train wreck that is iTunes for Windows has got to die. If Apple can’t figure out how to make a Windows application, then just steal user interface from Microsoft’s Windows Media Center.
5. Cell phone/tablet interaction from Microsoft Surface
Microsoft Surface deserves more attention and credit than it gets. For starters, it’s the only major MPG (multi-touch, physics and gestures) device to hit the market before the iPhone did.
No, it’s not a consumer device, and it’s not ready for the consumer marketplace. But Surface has some interface elements that are even more “magical” than iOS.
One of my favorites is how a Surface tablet can recognize objects placed upon it. If you drop a piece of paper on a Surface 2.0 PC, it can read it. Better still, Surface can recognize digital cameras and cell phones, spilling out their pictures and enabling you to move documents from one device to another
by sliding them across the screen.
Apple wouldn’t need to add all this capability, just steal the core concept for connecting an iPhone or iPod Touch to an iPad.
Apple is going to add near-field communication technology to iOS devices anyway — why not use that to connect the devices to each other?
Imagine placing your iPhone on the corner of your iPad, and being given the option to grab files or pictures directly from the phone and slide them onto the iPad, or from the iPad to the iPhone. You could also theoretically copy apps from one to the other.
Microsoft Surface gadget interaction is a bit of interface magic that Apple should just steal.