Where form meets function

As the saying goes, “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” However, in the tech world, admiration often comes with the acknowledgement that it could seriously affect a company’s bottom line based on who and exactly what is being parroted on a digital scope.

The latest evidence that mimicry is a major play in the space is Instagram’s rollout of their “Stories” feature which encourages users to “share all the moments in their day, not just the ones they want to keep on their profile” – while also allowing for the inclusion of text and various drawing tools to further liven up the imagery. If that feature seems familiar, it’s essentially Snapchat’s entire business model.

Although it may seem like a blatant copy, Instagram isn’t shying away from that perception. TechCrunch broached the question on everyone’s mind to Instagram CEO Kevin Systrom, asking, “Let’s talk about the big thing. Snapchat pioneered a lot of this format. Whole parts of the concept, the implementation, down to the details…”

“Totally,” Systrom replied. “They deserve all the credit.”

“When you are an innovator, that’s awesome,” he continued. “Just like Instagram deserves all the credit for bringing filters to the forefront. This isn’t about who invented something. This is about a format, and how you take it to a network and put your own spin on it.”

Probably the biggest thing to take away from Systrom’s candor was his belief that, “You can’t just recreate another product. But you can say ‘what’s really awesome about a format? And does it apply to our network?’”

If you needed further proof that the technology sector is quite lawless when it comes to aspects that aren’t proprietary, look no further than these five examples.

Mac and the Xerox PARC Labs

hristopher W. via Flickr

Legend has it that Steve Jobs and a team of developers working on Apple’s Lisa personal computer paid a visit to Xerox’s legendary Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) where they paid close attention to PARC’s pioneering personal computer, the Alto.

According to The Los Angeles Times, PARC scientist Larry Tesler, who was working on the Alto’s keyboard and mouse, recalled that Apple engineer Bill Atkinson leaned in so closely over him while staring at the screen that he could feel Atkinson’s breath on the back of his neck – a point to illustrate that Apple was there on a fact-finding mission as opposed the merely paying their neighbors a friendly visit.

Atkinson later said that he didn’t steal PARC’s version, but that seeing there was a solution “empowered” him to invent his own solution, which went into the original Mac.

In an episode NPR’s All Things Considered, Malcolm Gladwell told the story about how Steve Jobs first brought the mouse to Apple by perfecting a demonstration of a new three-button computer mouse he had seen at PARC.

“[PARC] essentially invent virtually everything that we associate with the personal computer – the desktop computer, the mouse, windows, the ethernet, the laser printer. Everything comes out of there,” Gladwell said. “And in 1979 Steve Jobs, who is then 24-year-old entrepreneur from down the street comes to visit and he sees the mouse. He’s never seen a mouse before, and he says – he starts jumping up and down and says: ‘This is the future, right?’ And he also sees the fact that they had icons on the screen and they would click on icons on the screen with the mouse, and they would open and close windows. And he’s never seen this approach to computing before. And he drives back to Apple, this little tiny start-up company and he says: ‘Stop what you’re doing,’ this is the way to do a personal computer. And the result of that is the Macintosh.”

A passage from Walter Isaacson’s biography of Jobs, as excerpted in Fortune, tells the story of an instance when Steve Jobs accused Microsoft’s Bill Gates of “theft” of the Mac’s graphical operating system.

“Their meeting was in Jobs’s conference room, where Gates found himself surrounded by ten Apple employees who were eager to watch their boss assail him,” Isaacson noted. “Jobs didn’t disappoint his troops. ‘You’re ripping us off!’ he shouted. ‘I trusted you, and now you’re stealing from us!’ Gates just sat there coolly, looking Steve in the eye, before hurling back, in his squeaky voice, what became a classic zinger. ‘Well, Steve, I think there’s more than one way of looking at it. I think it’s more like we both had this rich neighbor named Xerox and I broke into his house to steal the TV set and found out that you had already stolen it.'”

The iPod and Braun T3 Pocket Radio/Bang & Olufsen


In response to a question at an event in 2014 about Chinese smartphone manufacturer Xiaomi, Apple’s Chief Design Officer, Jony Ive, said that he didn’t see copying as flattery. “I actually see it as theft,” he said.

Despite his hardline approach on thievery, Apple was clearly influenced by two other companies when creating the first iPod: Braun and Bang & Olufsen.

Specifically, Dieter Rams’s T3 pocket radio – which featured a circular wheel where the radio’s FM/AM dials had been placed and a cigarette-pack-size – bares a striking resemblance to the first iPod design.

One source with intimate knowledge about the birth of the iPod points to Bang & Olufsen as the true source of Apple’s thievery.

“It was a Bang & Olufsen phone,” explained the source. “B&O did a phone, like a home phone, and they used a wheel to scroll. [Apple marketing SVP] Phil [Schiller] had seen it, and said, ‘Well, we should do that.'”

Twitter’s algorithmic feed and Facebook


Twitter has evolved quite a bit since it launched in 2006. In addition to abandoning its 140 character limit which promoted brevity on the social media platform, the next most notable change in strategy relied on presenting tweets in a person’s timeline based on relevancy as opposed to reverse chronological order.

“We think this is a great way to get even more out of Twitter,” Mike Jahr, senior engineering manager for the company, wrote in a blog post.

Despite the portrayal that the switch was a reflection of wanting to enhance a user’s experience, people questioned if it was an attempt to revive a struggling business which during the first nine months of 2015 added 28 million users while Instagram picked up more than 100 million users.

Twitter’s timeline change was a direct reflection of what Facebook had implemented months earlier which employed a similar strategy of placing more emphasis on relevance as opposed to real-time posting.

“The goal of News Feed is to show you the stories that matter most to you,” Facebook said in a statement announcing the change. “We are making an update to News Feed that combines these two signals. News Feed will begin to look at both the probability that you would want to see the story at the top of your feed and the probability that you will like, comment on, click or share a story. We will rank stories higher in feed which we think people might take action on, and which people might want to see near the top of their News Feed.”

Netflix and NBC/Time Warner


One of the most revolutionary aspects of Netflix’s digital strategy has always relied on their signature “binge-worthy” model which allows viewers to watch programs in an expedited manner unlike more traditional platforms that roll out shows on a week-to-week basis.

“The move away from appointment television is enormous,” said Netflix Chief Content Officer, Ted Sarandos. “So why are you going to drag people back?”

Eventually, more traditional networks began to take note of the shift.

In August 2015, NBC announced a similar strategy for their David Duchovny-starring series, Aquarius, which became available to watch in its entirety online after the show’s premiere on May 28.

NBC chairman Bob Greenblatt didn’t specify whether the network would adopt the same release model for future shows, but told Variety that NBC was “fully aware how audiences want to consume multiple episodes of new television series faster and at their own discretion.”

Following NBC’s move, Time Warner-owned TBS aired a 25-hour binge-a-thon for new comedy Angie Tribeca – or essentially the first season five times over and without commercials – before its actual launch date.

Spotify’s Discover Weekly and SoundCloud’s Suggested Tracks


Having a premium Spotify account literally gives a person the ability to listen to tens of millions of songs. But if you’re like most, you probably find yourself listening to the same 20 albums and going back to the same five radio stations. However, that all changed when they rolled out their Discover Weekly section in July 2015 which relied on an algorithm based on your tastes to curate a new, two-hour playlist each Monday.

In June 2016, SoundCloud rolled out a similar service called “Suggested Tracks” which is essentially the very same thing and relies on the idea that the more you use the app, the better it can adapt to your listening preferences.

What To Read Next