Apple revamped its notification system in iOS 5, introducing a Notifications Center that was strikingly similar to Android’s notification scheme. Apple added its own refinements, such as the ability to add widgets displaying the weather, stock prices, and other frequently-updated information. But the basic approach—notifications displayed at the top of the screen accessible through a pull down gesture—is virtually identical to the approach Google invented.
Users benefit from this kind of copying. Google’s notification scheme was better than the original iPhone notifications, so it is in iOS users’s interests for Apple to copy the idea. The alternative—a world in which companies scrupulously avoid using each other’s ideas—would be much worse. It would become impossible to buy a smartphone incorporating the best innovations from across the industry.
Inventing in the dark
Legally, the question is whether Google infringed on Apple’s patent, copyright, or other possessions. Google appears to be on safe ground from a copyright perspective. Android is built on Linux and uses a Java-like virtual machine; iOS is built on Darwin and uses NeXT-derived Objective C frameworks. We don’t know of any allegations that Android was developed with literal copies of iOS code.
But whether Google infringed on Apple’s patents is a harder question. And it would have been especially difficult to answer as Google was creating the first versions of Android.
Patent law generally gives a firm like Apple one year from the public disclosure of an invention to file for a patent on it. Apple unveiled the iPhone in January 2007, so the filing deadline for iPhone-related inventions would have been in January 2008. After filing, there is an additional 18-month delay before applications are made public. So if Apple filed an iPhone-related patent application on the last day before the deadline, Google wouldn’t have learned of its existence until July 2009—almost a year after the first Android phone hit the market.
Who does this benefit, other than board members and shareholders? Patent / copyright laws are absurdly out of date, a remnant hundreds of years old which no longer makes sense for today’s climate of innovation.