Great artists steal the future

Steve Jobs once appropriated an old quote:

"Good artists copy, great artists steal."

It’s becoming more and more clear that Steve felt personally betrayed by Google’s decision to enter the smartphone market with Android — an OS that is in almost every important way a copy of Apple’s iOS.

An early snippet from Steve Jobs’s forthcoming biography:

I will spend my last dying breath if I need to, and I will spend every penny of Apple’s $40 billion in the bank, to right this wrong,” Jobs said. “I’m going to destroy Android, because it’s a stolen product. I’m willing to go thermonuclear war on this.

Some see hypocrisy in this reaction.

I’ve always thought the “good artists copy” line was confusing, at best, so I started to think about it: What does it actually mean?

The best possible analysis, I think, rests in the distinction between copying and stealing.

They’re both negative concepts, at first blush, but the quote clearly indicates that stealing is better than copying.

Those who hold the quote against Steve, given his reaction to the rise of Android, often seem to conflate the two terms, but:

  • Copying involves reproducing something wholesale and leaving the original intact.
  • Stealing involves taking something and making it your own; the original owner is left with nothing.

It’s simple, really: There’s nothing bold about copying. Great artists (or designers, or whatever) take what they need and they make a product their own. But it’s also much bigger than that.

Apple didn’t invent the iPod, they stole the idea and made the music industry their own. The way we buy and listen to music is now shaped almost entirely by Apple’s vision.

Apple didn’t invent the smartphone, they stole the idea and reshaped the industry in their own vision. Yes, Apple has “copied” bits and pieces of iOS from other sources —notifications is the obvious example — but overall, the future of the mobile industry has been shaped by Apple.

Apple didn’t invent the tablet computer, they stole the idea and now iOS is the template for the tablet market.

The future isn’t about market share, it’s about a post-PC mindset:

Pre-iPad, tablets were attempting to hitch a ride East. Apple built a brand new car and started driving West.  

Even assuming someone, someday, takes the bulk of the tablet market (as Google’s Android OS has done in mobile) they’ll be sitting bitch in Apple’s vision of a post-PC world. 

As it stands, Apple owns the future and Microsoft still doesn’t know where their tablet ideas went.

The takeaway: In each of the above cases Apple stole the future out from under their competitors.

The reason Apple TV and iBooks aren’t taking off — the reason Apple isn’t owning those industries — is that Apple hasn’t stolen anything. They’ve brought almost nothing to the table. They copied our basic ideas of what an ebook reader and a streaming set-top video device can be:

"You wanted it, here it is."

When Steve called Apple TV a hobby, he meant that Apple is borrowing ideas because they don’t yet know how to steal the industry. The future is still up for grabs.

I would argue that the reason Steve Jobs was so irate about Android (beyond the personal betrayal of Eric Schmidt) is that it seems to aspire to little more than a “good enough” facsimile of iOS, and most of Google’s hardware partners are slavishly aiming for “iPhone-like” hardware designs.

"Open" is Google’s attempt to steal the future, but it’s not catching on. (Google knows this because their extensive research tells them that people don’t "love" their Android phones. You can’t steal the future if no one feels a connection to your product.)

That just leaves the copying. Google isn’t taking ownership of anything except market share. Google is living in Apple’s stolen future.

That’s not to say that copying can’t be a successful business strategy. The quote doesn’t have much to say about whether “good” artists can move a lot of units and “great” is never a guarantee of long or short-term mainstream success.

I’ll leave off with the source of the “good artists” quote. It’s often attributed to Pablo Picasso, but it turns out it’s a bastardized version of a quote from a T.S. Eliot essay.

This may be the most apt description of the difference between Apple’s vision for iOS and Google’s for Android I’ve ever read. It’s also as good a summary of Steve Jobs’s legacy and genius as you’ll likely ever find:

One of the surest tests [of the superiority or inferiority of a poet] is the way in which a poet borrows. Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different than that from which it is torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion. A good poet will usually borrow from authors remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest.

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