Jony Ive’s copy-cat complaints about Xiaomi sound eerily familiar

Jony Ive and his omnipresent white background.
Jony Ive and his omnipresent white background.
Image: Reuters/Stephen Lam
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Apple design impressario Jony Ive is not a fan of Xiaomi, the upstart Chinese smartphone manufacturer that has been accused of copying design elements of the iPhone. Asked about Xiaomi at a Vanity Fair event last night, Ive said:

I don’t see it as flattery. When you’re doing something for the first time, you don’t know it’s gonna work, you spend 7 or 8 years working on something, and then it’s copied. I think it is really straightforward. It is theft and it is lazy. I don’t think it is ok at all.

This isn’t the first time that Ive has railed against copy-cats. In March, he told the Sunday Times:

It’s theft … what’s copied isn’t just a design, it’s thousands and thousands of hours of struggle. It’s only when you’ve achieved what you set out to do that you can say, ‘This was worth pursuing.’ It takes years of investment, years of pain.

Ive’s complaints are only the latest in a long line of Apple copy-cat claims and counter-claims that go all the way back to the first Macintosh computer, and have involved just about every prominent Apple product since. Apple has been accused of copying about as many times as it has made the accusations itself. And perhaps that’s not a surprise when one of co-founder Steve Jobs’ favorite quotes is that “good artists copy, great artists steal.” (The quote itself is often mistakenly attributed to Pablo Picasso, but the actual provenance is murky.)

Here’s a rundown of some of the most famous copy-cat accusations involving Apple:

Apple & Xerox

Steve Jobs saw the computer mouse and graphical user interface (GUI) in action at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) and subsequently adopted both technologies for the Macintosh personal computer.

Apple & Microsoft

When Bill Gates revealed Microsoft’s Windows operating system, which used a GUI like the Mac, Jobs was apoplectic. Here’s the scene from Walter Isaacson’s biography of Jobs:

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. 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.”

Apple & Braun

A huge number of Apple products—including the original iPod and the iMac—bear a resemblance to consumer products developed by star Braun designer Dieter Rams, whom Ive has acknowledged as one of his biggest influences.

Apple & Google

When Google introduced its Android open-source smartphone operating system, Jobs considered it a blatant copy of Apple’s iOS software. “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 told Isaacson. “I’m going to destroy Android, because it’s a stolen product. I’m willing to go thermonuclear war on this.”

Part of the reason Jobs was so irate, according to Steven Levy’s book “In The Plex,” was that he had taken the search firm’s co-founders under his wing when Google was getting started, thinking that the two companies would never overlap. Google CEO Eric Schmidt also served on Apple’s board while the iPhone was in development.

Apple & Samsung

As part of Apple’s counterstrike against Android, the company became embroiled in a massively complex legal battle with Samsung, whose global smartphone market share eventually topped Apple’s. The patent lawsuits and countersuits, many of which are still pending, turn on such fine points of intellectual property law as whether Apple could patent “a rectangular phone with rounded corners.”

Apple & Sony

Samsung, in legal filings, accused Apple of copying Sony when it developed the iPhone.

Apple & Xiaomi

The Chinese smartphone manufacturer has long been compared with Apple—both for its stylish approach to design and some other, more heavy-handed apparent appropriations. Xiaomi co-founder Lei Jun also has invited comparisons to Jobs for his on-stage showmanship (and jeans and turtleneck combos), even announcing a Jobsian “one more thing” at a recent product unveiling.

Xiaomi’s Hugo Barra (formerly of Google, where he clashed with Apple as the head Android manager) has defended Xiaomi against copy-cat claims, decrying critics who make “sensational, sweeping statements before actually seeing our products and playing with them” in an interview with The Next Web.

Lei, for his part, has vociferously denied that he is aping Jobs:

Mr. Jobs was a great man. He did brilliant things, he changed the world, and was a huge inspiration to Xiaomi. But to use him as a point of comparison for myself is completely inappropriate. Xiaomi and Apple are two totally different companies.

But if anything, Lei’s denials seem to pay tribute to none other than Jobs himself, who walked the line between homage and appropriation better than anyone. To paraphrase Picasso (even though it wasn’t really his quote): Good companies copy, great companies have “influences.”