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.