“Good artists copy, great artists steal.”
That is a quote attributed by Steve Jobs to Pablo Picasso. And going by that definition, there are a lot of good artists around in the world of tech. But then, not everyone subscribes to that definition, which leads to accusations of copycat time and again, with the accusers sometimes becoming the accused.
Copying, intentional or accidental, has been around for a while, but then it surfaces from time to time, creates a stir, and then disappears. And it has come to light again with the release of the Poco M2 Pro, which bears an uncanny resemblance in spec and design to the Redmi Note 9 Pro, which was released by Poco’s parent company, Xiaomi, a few months ago.
“Inspiration” has existed for a long time now
Having two products that are very similar to each other is not a new phenomenon in the world of tech. It is indeed very common for many brands to have similar products in different product “series” or in sub-brands. Sometimes you even saw almost exactly the same product from different brands, often through an amicable agreement – a classic example were some cameras from Panasonic that were almost the same as those from Leica (the brands did collaborate so there were no issues).
Similarly, there were whispers that some OnePlus devices looked rather too similar in spec and appearance terms to those from Oppo, a rival brand but a part of the same group. Most recently, some people have mentioned some very close similarities between devices in different series of Samsung. And do not even get us started on the allegations about Apple and Xiaomi!
Copying or imitating or being inspired in some way or whatever you choose to term it (do avoid “teepoing,” though) by other people and products has always existed in the world in general, and in the tech industry in particular. And to an extent, it is understandable – after all, if something done by a particular brand works, there is no harm in offering something similar to one’s own consumers, as long as legal lines are not crossed. In fact, rebranding a device is a perfectly legitimate marketing strategy – even books get released in different markets under different titles!
That is an argument that however does not sit too well with the critics and geek circle (of which we are a part, we admit). And that too is understandable. After all, what is the point of going on and on about the importance of innovation and months of product development, if all you are going to at the end serve up something that looks dreadfully similar to what your competition has, albeit under a different name? Hence the outrage in many quarters over the Poco M2 Pro, which as we pointed out, is just too similar to the Redmi Note 9 Pro.
Consumers love copycats!
The big problem and the reason why copying/being inspired/imitating/whatever does not ever go away is because even while critics outrage, the consumer seems to have no problem with it.
“It does not bother the consumer whether the product is a copy or original, as long as it works,” a retailer told us. “Look at films. So many songs and scenes in Hindi films are copied from Hollywood ones. Does anyone mind? You people in the press will give speeches about this being bad, but the aam janta (common people) will still go and watch!”
But then why do brands accuse each other of copying so often? According to a number of people, it is more about getting attention than any moral high ground. “They will complain only at their own launch or during someone else’s launch,” a communications executive told us. “It is basically to get some brownie points.”
However, the commercial impact of these brownie points, such as they are, does not seem to be much. “Look, the consumers are actually happy to get a similar device at a lower price,” our retailer source told us. “No one said ‘oh no, we will not use portrait mode on Android phones because it is like Apple.’ Almost everyone wants everything that other phones have. No one wonders about who was this copied from when they are using a feature. That is the truth!” It is hardly surprising that he has no problem with the Poco M2 Pro looking and being specced almost exactly like the Redmi Note 9 Pro. “Redmi Notes get sold out, so people will have one more option which is almost the same, and the same price with a better charger also,” is his rationale.
Not fair, not healthy, but can it be fixed?
So is copying or whatever people choose to call it a good thing, just because the consumer benefits? On a moral note, definitely not, for at the end of the day, a person or brand who came out with an original innovation does not get credit for it. And it definitely also affects the brand’s credibility in terms of innovation, although again to what extent this affects sales is debatable. The whole process is likely to stop only when the consumers opt for originals rather than copies, real or perceived. Now, some might say that might never happen but the stark fact is that some of the most successful devices of all time like the iPhone and the Moto RAZR were actually insanely innovative. Consumers also for a long time were ready to pay a premium for BlackBerry’s BBM service, which was very different from the competition. Even today, one of the highest-selling gaming consoles out there is the Nintendo Switch, a very innovative device that lets you switch between large and small screens seamlessly.
The problem is: while innovation can be very profitable indeed, it takes time and money. And there is always the danger of failing. But if you look at the odds, for the bigger brands, the gamble should be worth it. The problem unfortunately is that most can get away with simple rebrands or clones. “Curiosity killed the cat, copying never did,” an executive at one of India’s leading smartphone brands told us wryly. “Of course, we would love to make different devices. But there will be someone who will say: ‘instead of spending months on something, why not simply do something like what that brand has done?’ That’s where the problem comes in. Sure, everyone can claim to idolize Apple, but how many are ready to put in that kind of crazy effort – to stake everything on just a few devices every year?”
Needed: the art of innovation, and giving credit
Which is perhaps the biggest reason why the not-so-noble art of copying/taking inspiration/ whatever exists to this day – the brands do not want to risk too much in innovation when they can get away with cloning the competition, knowing well that the consumer will not really give too much of a damn as to who was there first.
It would be expecting too much from the brands to stop “getting inspired” by the competition to the point of copying it overnight, but perhaps a bit more transparency in giving credit where it is due would be good for us all. Both Xiaomi’s Hugo Barra and HTC’s Peter Chou were notable for openly admitting that they were inspired by Apple. The doublespeak of claiming to be innovative while seeming to clone another product borders on dishonesty which is never healthy for any relationship. It would definitely contribute to a healthier atmosphere. Although to be honest, we do not see that happening, as the consumer simply does not really care as much about originality as many of us would like to believe.
Or perhaps, brands should realize that being innovative pays. And giving credit to others does too.
Sounds too optimistic? Let us go back to the beginning. That quote.
“Good artists copy, great artists steal.”
There is no evidence that Picasso ever said it. Similar things had been said by other people, but Jobs was innovative enough to come out with a summary of them. And perhaps he himself did not know it, but by giving credit to someone else (someone on whom the quote fit perfectly), he actually increased its credibility. Which is why perhaps we still quote it.
A lesson there, somewhere. But will anyone heed it? Until they do, that cat called Copy will continue to sit and purr contentedly as long as consumers and brands keep feeding it milk and cream!