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Famously, in the late 1980's Apple sued Microsoft over the "look and feel" of Windows 2.x. The claim was that Windows breached Apple's copyright by being too similar to the Mac UI. Apple ultimately lost, but as the Wikipedia page on the subject explains some of the contested elements were:

  • The existence of windows on the screen
  • Rectangular windows which could be resized, overlap and have title bars

The Amiga's Workbench and intuition.library provided all of these features, along with many other elements and concepts shared with the Mac UI. These were demonstrated in 1984 and released publicly in 1985, yet Windows 2.0 didn't appear until late 1987.

So why didn't Apple sue Commodore/Amiga for the same breach of "look and feel"? Was it because Commodore was simply beneath Apple's radar at the time, or was the Apple vs Microsoft more about politics than technology?

  • 2
    I tried to find the worth of Commodore in 1987 vs the worth of Microsoft but failed. It would perhaps be related. – pipe Mar 1 at 15:14
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    Commodore mostly lost money between Tramiel’s exit and the launch of the A500. – Tommy Mar 1 at 15:46
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    Is this the same Apple that stole theirs from Xerox PARC ? :) – Alan B Mar 2 at 19:08
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    Apple also sued Digital Research over the GEM desktop. This affected the development of the Atari ST series. – Lars Brinkhoff Mar 3 at 5:46
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    @AlanB, That's a myth. Apple made a stock deal with Xerox, which granted them access to Xerox's innovations. Not a good deal for Xerox in retrospective, given the revolutionary technology they were giving away, but it was all consensual. – GetFree Mar 3 at 10:18
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It may have been a combination of hubris and legal prudence on Commodore's part; per Commodore: The Amiga Years:

The Amiga designers wanted something more original than [Berkeley Softworks'] proposal. "This may have been unfair, but part of it was we thought GEOS looked too much like a Mac; a color Mac before there was a color Mac," says [Dale] Luck. "It was felt that we could do something a lot better."

... The Amiga employees were careful not to put themselves at risk of a lawsuit over the GUI. "We started out passing around design docs. The actual implementation was done completely behind the walls so that there was no knowledge of what anyone else had done," says [RJ] Mical.

Because of this policy, Amiga did not not receive any infringement lawsuits based on their GUI. "Not a one; not from anyone, ever," says Mical. "I attribute that mostly to the fact that once I decided that I needed to do a user interface, I slammed the door and drew the blinds and invented it completely and entirely on my own. I didn't look at any other computer system through the whole period. We wanted it to be as clean-room as possible."

i.e.

  • there was a conscious decision not to look too much like a Mac, and instead to aim higher; and
  • once that decision was made, development occurred with as little in the way of external influences as they could manage.

As to the theory suggested elsewhere in a comment, I do not think it was that Commodore was not on Apple's radar — the Apple II was Apple's cash cow for longer than the C64 was Commodore's and they will have been aware of the competition. There's also some staff crossover; e.g. Ron Nicholson, a hardware designer, has his signature inside the cases of both the Macintosh 128k and the Amiga 1000†.

Commodore also once tried to hire Jean-Louis Gassée, who famously helped to oust Steve Jobs while at Apple and then later failed to sell his BeOS back to them; per Amazing Computing, November 1996 via Commodore: The Final Years:

Gassée both admired and feared Commodore Amiga during his tenure at Apple. "We were really scared of the Amiga," he says. "Fortunately, Irving Gould helped Apple by running Commodore into the ground."

† He's also a member here so perhaps he can provide more colour.

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    I'm not familiar with the Amiga UI. Did it adopt the "office desktop metaphor" a la Xerox Star, or come up with an alternative idea for arranging programs and files? – another-dave Mar 1 at 23:55
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    The metaphor is a workbench rather than a desktop, with drawers not folders, but the main difference from the then-Mac is that because it was preemptively multitasking it skips straight to the semi-modern world where applications just open windows within the existing desktop — compare to pre-MultiFinder Mac OS where the desktop is something you leave to enter an application. If MacWrite is running, the Finder isn't. The Amiga also famously allowed non-windowed applications in arbitrary graphics modes that you can slide up and down in front of each other thanks to the Copper. – Tommy Mar 2 at 0:24
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    Also, in terms of coding, it differs much more obviously, with widgets being something you request creation of and which will message you, but which don't live in your thread. Keeping the system responsive isn't your responsibility, other than being careful about the lack of memory protection. Conversely, Win16 and the classic Mac Toolkit are virtually interchangeable. – Tommy Mar 2 at 0:26
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    Another difference: I bought an Amiga instead of a Mac because of how many times the Mac crashed in my first “test drive” in the store. Now the Amiga wasn’t a jewel in that regard, either, but at_the_time it was more stable than Mac. – WGroleau Mar 2 at 2:18
  • One thing of the Amiga UI that I hated was that you didn't have direct access to the files on the storage. On the Mac and also in GEM (and also windows starting with win95/NT4), when you inserted a disk or accessed the hard disk, you could access directly all the files inside the window. On the workbench (and Windows <=3.11), you would only see icons that were specifically setup and could only access files via a specific file manager. On a basic 512K Amiga 500 with 1 floppy it was extremely annoying as you had to play the disk jockey all the time just to see if there was a readme on a floppy – Patrick Schlüter Mar 2 at 10:43
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While some lawyers do occasionally file lawsuits based mainly on their targets having "deep pockets", like Microsoft had, this is not generally successful. In order for a typical corporate lawsuit to gain any traction in the court, the plaintiff must provide sufficient "standing".

In order to establish standing, Apple sought to convince the court that Microsoft's actions violated an earlier licensing agreement for Macintosh technology that was inked between Apple and Microsoft in 1985. Furthermore, HP was included in the lawsuit because it was alleged Microsoft had sub-licensed Windows technology to HP for NewWave.

The litigation arose out of a dispute whether an earlier version of Microsoft's software, Windows 1.0, infringed Apple copyrights. Microsoft and Apple sought to put that dispute to rest by an agreement on November 22, 1985 ("1985 Agreement"). By that agreement, Apple granted to Microsoft a non-exclusive license of the audiovisual displays in Windows 1.0. As the court found on March 20, 1989, however, the 1985 Agreement is not a complete defense to this action, because it was limited to the visual displays in Windows 1.0 and did not cover displays in Windows 2.03 that were not in the prior work. Apple Computer, Inc. v. Microsoft Corp., 709 F. Supp. 925, 930 (N.D.Cal.1989).

Given that no such prior licensing agreements existed between Apple and Commodore-Amiga, it is apparent that the same complaint could not be brought against them by Apple. If Apple wanted to file subsequent lawsuits against Commodore, and others who used similar GUI elements to the Macintosh, they really needed a victory against Microsoft and HP first, which would set a precedent about copyright protections applying to the Mac GUI. After all, copyright was the underlying basis for these Apple claims, not stronger protections, such as registered U.S. patents.

Since Apple ultimately lost the copyright argument, there was never any point to reviving this case by going after other alleged "infringers", such as Commodore. The court had already ruled no infringement had taken place by Microsoft, so Commodore was inoculated against such a claim.

  • 2
    Well put. In addition, using patents would have been easy undermined (at least back then) by showing prior art in form of Xerox Star and other GUI applications. – Raffzahn Mar 1 at 17:56
  • The trash can icon was changed or removed from most of the GUI's, except for Digital Researches GEM GUI, which is mostly used on Atari ST family. – rcgldr Mar 1 at 20:41
  • @rcgldr: the trash can was removed on the PC version of GEM. – ninjalj Mar 1 at 23:31
  • @ninjalj - it was removed by DRI with a new version called GEM/2, in order to avoid a potential lawsuit. GEM/1 wasn't changed, and GEM/2 was only made for PC, so the Atari ST remained based on GEM/1 with some updates. I have an Atari ST, and I also have GEM/1 and GEM/2 installed on separate Windows Virtual PC images (using MSDOS 6.22 as the base OS). – rcgldr Mar 2 at 11:52
  • The Amstrad PC1512 came with GEM (Desktop version 2.0, dated 24 march 1986). Most people probably remember GEM from either the ST or the 1512. – ninjalj Mar 2 at 13:14

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