Who copied who?


Popular Linux desktop application Avant Window Navigator received a large amount of flak for using the same depth effect as Apple’s upcoming release of OS X. But things aren’t always what they seem, and the example proves two important truths about the technology industry.

Quoting one Digg user:

“Wow Leopard…. I mean Linux looks good…

Way to come up with original ideas ”

We think Avant (at top) was probably inspired by Leopard (in the middle), but Apple’s engineers would have likely looked at other desktops themselves. Including Sun’s Project Looking Glass, an experimental interface which has been around for years. Check the uncropped version of the screenshot below:

That’s one very old Mozilla. The image is from a Sun Presentation in 2003. While we’re at it, you might be interested in something else from Looking Glass at the time – the ability to play music by sorting through the album artwork covers of your CDs (warning:fast forward the video to 5:05, or you might see a man in a ponytail) – what Jonathan Del Strother later developed and sold to Apple as Cover Flow.

Is Apple ripping off Sun? No.

There’s two lessons here:

1. Good engineers try competing products, and get inspired by them. The Unix sudo command becomes Red Hat and Apple’s graphical equivalent, which turns into Vista’s famous Cancel/Allow dialogs (which don’t need the password typed at all). Each improves in a small way on what went before.

2. Parallel thinking happens. Good ideas are often obvious to engineers faced with the same problems.

  • Public key cryptography – the basis of online commerce – was created twice. First by British Engineer Clifford Cocks in 1973 and then four years later at MIT, by engineers unaware of Cocks’ classified work.
  • Being able to moderate articles was a frequent user request on since the late 90s. Digg improved on Slashdot by finally catering to that suggestion, but the idea wasn’t new.
  • Dilbert creator Scott Adams (whose a pretty sharp guy) created a calendaring service that used your appointments to provide related advertising – and then found out someone at his gym had already done so.

I’ve personally thought of great ideas for online security and discussed it with a management consultant friend, who then told me he had a friend at Deloitte who’d been working on the same thing.

If you’re an engineer working on a 3D desktop, and there’s a large flat object on the bottom of the screen, a logical conclusion would be to have some depth of field.

If the problem is sorting through music, and you want something more visual than text, it would also be reasonable to use album artwork for that purpose.

Though we hope Cover Flow isn’t patented.


  • That’s an ancient Mozilla using the Netscape 4 theme, not Netscape 4.
  • Sun desktop shown is Project Looking Glass, not JDS.

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