Great artists steal
The late Steve Jobs referenced the quote "good artists borrow; great artists steal" and since then it's been weaponized and used to both condemn Apple for a perceived lack of creativity, or to excuse or justify competitors feeding off Apple's creativity, or both.
There was Xerox PARC before the Mac, critics say. There were Palm Treos or LG Prada's before the iPhone. There were Tablet PCs before the iPad. Nobody copied Apple and if they did, Apple copied other people first! Great artists steal!
Except that's not what the quote means, and it's not at all what Apple does.
Great artists steal inspiration not implementation.
Therein lies a monumental, industry defining difference. Apple, namely Steve Jobs, saw a mouse and graphical UI, but he didn't make a copy of Xerox's STAR, he made the Mac. He didn't look at it and see what it was and then copy it -- he looked at it and saw what it could become and then created that.
The Mac was inspired by the same fundamental user interface concepts as the STAR but it implemented those concepts in a far more consumer-friendly way.
Same goes for the iPhone, which was certainly inspired by the ideas of the Palm Treo -- a connected, multifunctional device with a touch screen -- but once again implemented those ideas in a way far more accessible way for far more people.
I wrote about this yesterday in the comments to the post about Larry Page dismissing Steve Jobs' anger towards Google and Android as "a show".
Apple’s singular talent is taking existing technologies, putting them together in ways that are elegant and sensible, well packaged and integrated, and making them mainstream.
Henry Ford didn’t invent the car, he invented a way to make the car for everyone. Apple didn’t invent the elements that went into the iPhone, but they absolutely invented it. They invented how it looked and felt, how it was manufactured and how it worked in relation to the carriers. As the sum total of its bits and atoms, they invented the iPhone.
And not just the iPhone.
Again, it's why Apple made the Apple II and not IBM, why Apple made the Mac and not Xerox, why Apple made the iPod and not Sony, why Apple made the iPhone and not Palm, why Apple made the MacBook Air and not HP, why Apple made the iPad and not Microsoft.
Any one of those would have been an achievement. All of those together, from one company, over the span of one lifetime, is something much more.
It's great art.