Is Apple being dumb or dangerous?

Maybe, but not likely in the way Farhad Manjoo thinks. Apple has filed a suit against HTC for 20 or so patent infringements making good on a threat it made when the iPhone was announced in January 2007. Manjoo argues that software patents like this shouldn’t be granted although there seems a mix of software and hardware in the claim. He argues that the patents shouldn’t have been granted anyway because they are too far-reaching. Although if you look at the 20 patents, they are pretty specific and isn’t it the USPTOs job to make sure the claims are just that. Then he argues that the patents are not covering new technology as others had demonstrated similar things at the same time or earlier. Well, that one is easy for the Court to sort out and unless Apple is blind surely it would see that. The more likely thing is that those other technologies were not what was covered by the patent.

All of these are legal issues that both Apple and HTC’s legal advisors can easily evaluate. What is more, HTC could have looked at the patent applications and assessed the risks before launching their new phones. This is not something that has been kept secret. So everything about this suggests that this is the sort of dispute that won’t be that hard to sort out and unlikely requires a full re-writing of patent law in order to come to a decision. Everything points to settlement and little points to Apple stupid or something that will harm them.

Manjoo has one final claim: that this suit will distract Apple engineers away from making good products and towards legal stuff. There is at least one study that predicts that this might occur but that is a long way from a specific recommendation about Apple.

I think the broader issue — and it is far from clear that this case is about that — is that things that harm open flow of ideas in industries like this can impede the industry’s evolution in ways that harm consumers. The big concern is that this might set back HTC and more broadly, Google, in the development of Android. To react, they will have to recast their technologies to work around Apple’s patents and that this will take time. In the meantime, Google will notice that, we iPhone (and soon iPad) users rely on Google for all manner of stuff and it would be a big pain to switch to Microsoft or something like that. Google may choose to throw its hands up and start favouring Android more explicitly. That friction might also be a road to exclusivity in functions and content forcing consumers to choose not on which features are best but different groups that are available on different platforms. What a big pain that would be. The blogosphere reaction is akin to Rodney King, “can’t we all just get along.”

Put simply, no one wants to choose sides between two innovative companies. The worry is that this is all leading us down a path where we might have to do just that. In that world, our battles will be fought in the antitrust rather than intellectual property courts. Not a happy prospect.

8 thoughts on “Is Apple being dumb or dangerous?”

  1. I’m a bit confused and perhaps being thick, but how would Apple’s engineers be distracted by this lawsuit and therefore not make “good products?” The claim seems to be that focusing on patents turns attention away from new discoveries, which may be true or not. However, a patent lawsuit has nothing to do with engineering staff.
    I find the claim that Apple is suing because it has somehow run out of ideas wishful thinking at best, and it ignores Apple’s infrequent use of such lawsuits, which is far different from the multitude of suits against Apple from failing companies or patent trolls.
    Manjoo’s article on-the-whole is bit weak.

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  2. Pete, it’s about money.  Money that is spent on lawyers can’t be spent on R&D, manufacturing. marketing or salaries. That is how a lawsuit can “distract” a company and prevent it from making “good products”.  That, and it would be time Steve Jobs (and others) would be spending each day on that he would otherwise be spending micromanaging something else at Apple.

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  3. Wes     Apple has 40 Billion Dollars in Cash !   Totally  ridicules idea that they will be skimping on engineering to pay there legal fee’s.

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  4. I doubt money is an issue.  Apple’s war chest is apparently over $40B and it spends more than most on R&D.
    Other likely scenarios:

    Apple is currently embroiled in a patent dispute with nokia, and has to be seen to be defending its patents;
    Steve Jobs is pissed at Sergey at Google for sitting on the Apple board while the iphone was being developed, at the same time he was cooking up Android.  Don’t get Steve pissed.
    Sorta related, Steve Jobs still has issues from the eighties when he and Bill Gates worked closely together to develop word and excel, only to discover that Gatesy also copied large slabs of Mac OS to develop Windows while he was at it.  He doesn’t want history to repeat (maybe he learnt the wrong lesson though).

    It is interesting that before the iphone, all smartphones followed the small screen on top and qwerty keyboard below, and now all the happening smartphones follow to the touchscreen paradigm.  Android in fact was originally designed with physical keyboard input. It’s just that most of the android phones are touchscreen.  So you can sorta see why Jobs is pissed.  Doesn’t have to be logical, but I reckon it’s all about Steve.

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  5. #entropy
    Good point, the Chrome netbook idea is stolen from the Apple’s iPad project – observe the similarity of OS used.

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  6. Apple is defending against the whole sale coping of the complete engineering assemblage that constitutes the iPhone look, feel and function. If HTC had used many of these elements in a new and differential product they would have likely been ignored.

    Apple moved the industry out of it’s decade long innovative slumber by investing in some very expensive long term R&D.

    Within 18 months of the iPhone’s release the market is full of iPhone look a likes that, do not only use most of the same software, hardware, look/fell and interface elements but deliver a virtual design copy of the complete engineering assemblage without any real note worthy changes. HTC is, in essence, a general supplier of cloned iPhones to a wide array of Apple’s competitors.  HTC is a third party, one stop knockoff shop, reselling the value of Apple shareholder R&D to everyone else at commodity pricing.

    It is this whole sale product copy of the complete iPhone engineering assemblage that Apple objects to and rightfully so!

    If any car company came out with a revolutionary new car design with a look/fell and functional interface that was as radically game changing to all other cars as the iPhone was to all other earlier smart phones, no one would ever dare copy the complete engineering assemblage to produce cars that were a virtual carbon copy. Other car companies would indeed design their new products to compete with the new innovations but not as a obvious look/feel and functional knockoff.

    Where is it written that Apple should owe other competing corporations a free ride on the back of Apple shareholder financed R&D. The commodity produces are not owed a free lunch producing the latest and greatest product designs free of normal R&D overhead.

    Commodity producers should stick to producing low margin commoditized goods, produce newer products under license or do their own R&D. The wholesale stealing of complete product designs is not nor should it be on the innovators menu.

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  7. Apple is feeling the competitve heat in what has been a lucrative segment for them. Strategically, Apple may be pursuing this attack to deter other companies from entering this market. It may not be a coincidence that Apple is suing a small, but upcoming, competitor, rather than Samsung or Google themselves.

    If HTC has infringed then Apple is entitled to seek royalties. Without knowing the substance of the patent infringements, one can either speculate that HTC engineers don’t do sufficient patent searches when developing their products or the Apple-registered patents are so abstract in nature that infringement is possible. (Software patents are particularly suspect in this regard.)  

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