Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

The Cola Wars

The competition between Coca-Cola and Pepsi is a legendary marketing story. From 1975’s Pepsi Challenge to the New Coke disaster, it’s a classic story of rivalry. Aaron Sorkin couldn’t have written it better.

Since both companies sell a similar cola product, their marketing departments have to get creative. Since Coca-Cola has been red since the beginning, Pepsi went with blue. Coca-Cola chose polar bears as their mascot, so Pepsi chose Britney Spears. Even the bottles are different. Both products are similar, but they are marketed to be as different from each other as possible. Nobody at Pepsi wants their product sales to go to Coca-Cola because of customer confusion.

In the digital world, it’s almost the opposite. Some brands go to great lengths to confuse the customer into believing that their product is essentially the same as another. Samsung v. Apple was entirely about this—Samsung liked the way Apple designed their user interface, products, and packaging, and attempted to duplicate it. That strategy failed in the US, with the patent and trade dress trial decided almost entirely in Apple’s favour1.

Even though it didn’t work for Samsung, HP is trying a similar strategy. They introduced their new Spectre One desktop which, down to the keyboard, mouse, and trackpad, looks like a knockoff iMac.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that it’s just others copying Apple. The Notification Centre feature of iOS 5 is very similar to the notification drawer on Android phones.

Setting aside the moral and legal implications of knockoff products, all of these ripoffs share a common thread: they’re missed opportunities. I don’t protest against ripoffs from a lawyerly perspective (that’s Nilay Patel’s job), or even an art student’s perspective. It’s a simple fact that one cannot produce a better product by copying a current one.

It’s an admittedly selfish position to take. All I want are the best products that are possible. But by copying the notification drawer, Apple missed an opportunity to implement a more successful notification feature. Similarly, by copying the iMac, HP lost their chance to produce a better all-in-one PC. I don’t know what that would be, but assuming that the iMac is the best solution for an all-in-one computer is incredibly short-sighted. Design is an iterative process, and companies that produce derivative drivel will only understand this when they begin investing seriously in their design departments.