April 14, 2024

1984 Apple MacIntosh

1984 Apple MacIntosh
Photo: Mike Blake (Reuters)

Apple launched a landmark lawsuit against Microsoft 36 years ago on March 18, 1988 — the outcome of which defined how tech companies could use one another’s ideas as they developed then-groundbreaking computer software.

In its $5.5 billion suit, Apple alleged that Microsoft copied its computers’ look and feel with Windows version 2.03. At the time, Apple’s computers were the first to have graphical user interfaces (or GUIs) — a new and exciting way for users to interact with computer screens using visual elements like icons, buttons, and menus rather than text. Apple released its first commercial computer with a GUI named “Lisa” in 1983. Here’s how the New York Times described GUIs five years later:

“…virtually all personal computer makers are moving toward more of a Macintosh look. That appearance is based on what the industry calls a graphical user interface, in which information appears in windows and operations are carried out by pointing at objects and menus using a handheld device called a mouse – a major selling point of the Macintosh.”

Before the suit, the burgeoning tech giants were amicable. In 1985, they worked out a deal. Apple licensed its design elements to Microsoft for Windows version 1, and Apple got the rights to use some Microsoft products. But that all went to the wayside when Microsoft released the next version of Windows, which contained even more elements of Apple’s GUI.

Ironically, Xerox Corporation said Apple had actually copied its GUI used in its computer called Star. Xerox is widely credited with developing the first graphical user interface in the 1970s. But Xerox’s suit was dismissed in 1990.

“I think it’s unfortunate,’’ a copyright lawyer G. Gervaise Davis told the New York Times of the dismissal at the time, “because Apple is running around persecuting Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard over things that they borrowed from Xerox.’’

Apple’s suit was also dismissed, and the Supreme Court denied Apple’s final appeal in 1995, upholding a prior ruling that Microsoft’s use of its design elements was covered by their 1985 agreement or otherwise not copyrightable. While it was a big blow to Apple, which would only fall further behind Microsoft in the 1990s, the ruling paved the way for other personal computing companies to build off of one another’s ideas.

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