Something About Apple Influences

November 2nd, 2011

It’s not just a legend but a fact that Steve Jobs and crew visited the famous Xerox PARC labs in the 1970s, and were thus inspired to build the Macintosh and the Mac OS, with the famous graphical user interface. Of course PARC didn’t just invent GUIs. They were responsible for key innovations in laser printing, object-oriented programming, and lots of other goodies.

Now contrary to urban legend, Apple didn’t steal the idea from Xerox. According to the Wikipedia entry on the subject, “Xerox was allowed to buy pre-IPO stock from Apple, in exchange for engineer visits and an understanding that Apple would create a GUI product.” In other words, they had the perfect right to build the Mac OS, and, in fact, some PARC engineers ended up at Apple, including Bertrand Serlet, the former senior vice president of Mac Software Engineering.

Now imagine if that GUI found itself in a Xerox branded computer instead of one built by Apple, but the big difference between the two concepts is that PARC envisioned a computer for professionals, whereas Apple focused on a consumer-oriented machine.

But that is just one of the key influences for Apple’s inventions over the years, some of which have been touched on in these columns. A good example is the handheld computing device depicted in “Star Trek: Next Generation,” the first and probably most popular spin-off to the original series, which starred Patrick Stewart as the Captain of the starship Enterprise. Nothing strange about this, as ideas first introduced in science fiction stories, movies and TV shows have later found their way into real commercial products. Let’s not forget the famous Motorola StarTAC cell phone, which was clearly inspired by the communicator in the original “Star Trek.”

So I wasn’t surprised to read a column this week from a blogger who actually believed that the resemblance between the “Star Trek” mobile computer and the iPad was a brand new discovery. Talk about tunnel vision. Besides, it’s not as if such a gadget is a novel idea. Prototypes for tablet computers were developed in the 1970s, but it took years before the miniaturized parts were available, and at prices that allowed companies to make them affordable.

Indeed, Apple’s genius — and I grant that many credit much of that genius to Steve Jobs, although he had lots and lots of help and sometimes had to be persuaded to adopt a particular product idea — was to take existing product ideas and find superior solutions.

So while Apple may have invented one of the first affordable personal computers, beginning with the Apple I in the 1970s, many of their other concepts had been tried by others before Apple found a better way.

Certainly, the iPod was inspired by a number of other digital media players, all of which might be considered to be digital equivalents of the Sony Walkman. But it’s too bad that Sony, once a key designer of innovative products, never found a way to succeed with a portable digital player.

Although one may wonder whether Jobs paid much attention to science fiction shows, the iPad was no doubt deigned to be a better way to implement the tablet computers that were first introduced by Microsoft. For years, Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer touted the tablet as the next great thing, only to be left abandoned at the altar when Apple found a superior solution.

As you probably have heard, the iPhone itself was a fork of the iPad project. After denigrating the quality of mobile handsets for years, Jobs green lighted what was essentially a tinier version of the iPad with a built-in telephone. Till the iPhone arrived, most smartphones used tiny keyboards, typified by the BlackBerry. After the iPhone was unveiled, it was all or mostly about touch.

It’s also true that not every feature in the iOS or Mac OS originated with Apple. In the 1990s, for example, Apple actually acquired the rights from third party developers to distribute such utilities as Apple Menu Items and Extensions Manager as an integral part of the OS.

Nowadays, Apple adapts ideas from lots of places to embed into their products and software, and there’s been an ongoing cross-pollination between the iOS and OS X. Apple’s advantage now and always has been to improve upon existing concepts, while still maintaining a relatively seamless integration within a product, and among the entire product lineup.

If you want to be picky about such things, you can say that a lot of what Apple creates is adapted from other innovations, or employs technologies acquired by purchasing smaller companies. Certainly Siri is a notable example; the company was acquired by Apple last year, and I realize that the end result does indeed resemble the talking computer in “Star Trek,” including the female voice.

The Apple A4 and A5 chips, for example, were designed by the processor engineers who came to the company when Apple bought P.A. Semi in 2008.

In the end, of course, it’s not where the idea started, but how it was executed in a real product, which is where Apple usually excels.

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2 Responses to “Something About Apple Influences”

  1. DaveD says:

    One can see in Apple’s notebooks, how they have stepped outside of the box and pushed the industry to move.

    1) Moving the keyboard back to the screen
    2) Wireless Internet access
    3) Slot-loading CD/DVD drive
    4) Embedded web cam
    5) Chiclets keys on keyboard
    6) Larger trackpad area with multi-touch gestures

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