In the long term, the Apple vs Samsung patent war will come to be seen as little more than a skirmish in a technology revolution led by users, not by manufacturers.
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It’s difficult not to take sides after Apple won $1bn damages against Samsung in a California court that sits on the doorstep of the US tech heartland in Silicon Valley – and I’m on the side of Samsung, or at least on the side that says this patent action is damaging to the wider technology industry, will reduce consumer choice and hamper innovation.
As many others with far greater knowledge of patent law have already written in recent days, this case is a unique facet of US patent legislation that allows protection of basic elements of design, process and functionality that would to any normal user be considered obvious. Patents should protect genuine innovations and ideas – they were created to help inventors. That Apple can claim damages because is a rival product is also rectangular with rounded corners is absurd.
If Apple, as many predict, launches a television, then I hope that in the same spirit of not copying such elements, an Apple TV will be triangular, or maybe even hexagonal in shape. It’s notable how few other countries’ legal systems have taken the same one-sided view as the Californian court.
The counter argument is that Apple is encouraging rivals to innovate not emulate. But if emulation had been banned through the history of technological innovation, we’d have seen unsuccessful attempt to sell five-wheeled cars, fly three-winged aircraft, and 20 different versions of a plug socket in one house. We would have to buy Ford cars, perhaps, or only listen to a Marconi radio.
Without emulation, Apple would say that Microsoft would not have been able to copy the Mac interface when creating Windows – which is exactly what Apple hopes to avoid with Android in the smartphone era.
Of course, without emulation, Xerox would have been the main developer of PC operating system software and Apple would have been prevented from copying its “Wimp” (windows, icons, mouse and pull-down menu) graphical interface.
What Apple is hoping to stop is the inexorable process of standardisation. Hoover would have loved to stop us all buying “hoovers” from rival vacuum cleaner makers, but we have all benefited from such standardisation. We should be grateful to IBM for not preventing Compaq producing personal computers that looked strikingly similar to its own, albeit slightly more beige.
Standardisation is, to some innovators, the enemy. Standardisation takes one person’s innovation and commoditises it, reducing its value and profit potential. Of course, standardisation also drives down prices, increases consumer choice and improves competition.
It would be nice to think, as this blog post claims, that all Apple has done is signal to consumers who would not previously have considered Samsung, that the Korean firm’s products are very similar to the iPhone and iPad and therefore a worthy alternative.
But I would subscribe to the view that standardisation is essential to revolutionary innovation. I’m a fan of researchers such as Carlota Perez and Simon Wardley, who suggest that commoditisation of technology is an essential pre-requisite to genuine, era-defining, disruptive change and an explosion of innovation. When a non-protected technology is standardised, it becomes a platform for mass innovation.
Apple knows this, and wants to own the standard – it wants the iPhone to be the standard smartphone, and iPad the standard tablet. The iPhone itself proves the process of standards leading to innovation – the iPhone led directly to the wealth of innovation in app development. But Apple wants that to exist in a closed environment that it controls. You can have other closed environments, but you can’t call them an App Store, and you can’t access them through a rectangular thing with rounded edges and a grid of icons that happens to look like everyone’s idea of roughly what a smartphone should be.
Apple’s approach has, of course, been phenomenally successful – the most successful technology company in history, as of this moment.
But I would like to think that, in time, users will see through it. They will demand choice, and standardisation, and commoditisation, as well as innovation. And they will continue to choose Apple, and make the company and its investors very rich, because Apple makes damn good products. But they want to choose because of decisions they make on the high street or online, not decisions made in a US court. And they will one day look back and laugh at how stupid it was that one company tried to stop another making a good product because it looked and acted somewhat like its own.