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Apple pilfers rips off student's rejected iPhone app

iOS 5 lifts idea, name, even logo

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Apple is famous for going to absurd lengths to enforce its patents and trademarks. It recently sued Amazon for calling its app store Appstore. And it has publicly lectured competitors to “create their own original technology, not steal ours”.

But the company isn't always as fastidious about respecting the ideas of others. Consider the case of UK-based developer Greg Hughes. Last year, his app for wirelessly syncing iPhones with iTunes libraries was unceremoniously rejected from the official App Store. The software developer took the denial in stride, submitting Wi-Fi Sync to the Cydia store for jailbroken iPhones, where the app is a top seller.

Fast forward to Monday, when Apple unveiled a set of new features for the upcoming iOS 5, including the same wireless-syncing functionality. Cupertino wasn't even subtle about the appropriation, using the precise name and a near-identical logo to market the technology.

Side-by-side comparison of Wi-Fi Sync logos

A side-by-side comparison of logos for Wi-Fi Sync. Hughes's logo is on the left. Apple's is to the right.

“Obviously I was fairly shocked,” said Hughes, referring to his reaction on Monday when he saw the new feature promoted on Apple's website. “I'd been selling my app with that name and icon for at least a year. Apple knew that, as I'd submitted it to them, so it was surprising to see that.”

A student at the University of Birmingham finishing his third year in the Computer Science program, Hughes said Wi-Fi Sync was rejected from the iTunes App Store in May, 2010, one month after he submitted it. He said an iPhone developer relations representative named Steve Rea personally called him prior to sending a formal rejection email to say the app was admirable, but went on to explain there were unspecified security concerns and that it did things not specified in the official iPhone software developers' kit.

“They did say that the iPhone engineering team had looked at it and were impressed,” Hughes told El Reg. “They asked for my CV as well.”

Since the official rejection, Hughes's app has become one of the most popular offered in the Cydia store, with more than 50,000 sold in the past 13 months. Throughout that time, Wi-Fi Sync has cost $9.99, not including occasional promotional discounts. Hughes declined to say how much he has grossed in sales, but it's probably fair to say the sum is considerable for a college undergrad and almost certainly would have been much higher had his app been available to people who hadn't jailbroken their iPhones.

As Apple strives to maintain the allure of its aging iDevice lineup, it's inevitable that the company will integrate features and technologies into the underlying iOS that were once considered ancillary. Microsoft learned the dark side of this success story decades ago, and it has been branded as an imitator rather than an innovator ever since.

Apple's obsession with protecting what it perceives as its intellectual property is so great, it's impossible to generate an exhaustive list. Other recent examples include app store police's rejection of an iPhone app for using Apple images meant specifically for developers and the suing of a teenager who sold White iPhone 4 conversion kits.

But the next time Steve Jobs and company chides a competitor for blatant copying, remember that in the world in which Apple – and indeed any dominant company – resides, originality is in the eye of the Goliaths. The Davids, it seems, don't stand a chance. ®

Bootnote

The Unofficial Apple Weblog has cataloged a variety of other third-party developers that deserve a heart-felt thanks from Apple.

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