So it's official: a jury awarded Apple more than one billion dollars in damages to be paid by Samsung, because the latter company infringed a number of Apple's iPhone-related patents. So what does this mean for the future of mobile phones? That seems to depend on who you ask.
First, let's address the ruling itself. After deliberating for three days, during which they faced 109 pages of instructions and had to fill out a 700-item questionnaire, the nine-person jury found Samsung guilty of violating six out of seven Apple patents. These patents covered both the way the device is used and its design.
So Apple basically claimed that only its own devices should allow you to enlarge documents by double tapping the screen. And displays that “bounce back” when you scroll to the top or bottom of a web page? Yeah, that's an Apple exclusive. How about the ability to distinguish between single-touch and multi-touch gestures? That belongs exclusively to Apple products now, too. And you can forget about finding that cool ornamental design on the back of the iPhone anywhere else, to say nothing of its rounded square icons on the home screen interface, or even the ornamental design on the front of the iPhone. At least the judge threw out the idea of Apple owning the iPad's shape – a rectangle with rounded corners – due to the common sense idea that no company can patent a geometric shape.
Samsung plans to appeal this case, so it's not quite over yet. If you believe some observers, though, it isn't just Samsung that lost; it's innovators everywhere. Dr. R. Keith Sawyer over at Huffington Post made the case that patents are currently too easy to get and too easy to defend. “This blocks innovation because patent holders are allowed to prevent others from building on improving their patents,” he explained. “That's a problem because innovation is incremental; every new step forward always builds on a long chain of prior innovations.”
To illustrate this point, Sawyer points to his old Palm Treo 650, a device which already had many of the features present in the first iPhone. To someone who had previously owned such a device, the iPhone wasn't particularly innovative. Unfortunately, Samsung was prevented from showing evidence to the jurors that indicated the iPhone's features were inspired by such products.
Galen Gruman over at InfoWorld, on the other hand, thinks that Apple's win in this lawsuit will encourage innovation rather than stifle it. “Now, Samsung will have to innovate on the design end, which should lead to more innovation. And Samsung is very capable of innovating when it chooses to do so, as demonstrated by its Galaxy Note 'phablet' smartphone/tablet hybrid, Galaxy Note 10.1 tablet, and Galaxy S III smartphone,” Gruman pointed out. He added that Google warned Samsung that it might be infringing on Apple's patents, but the handset manufacturer chose to proceed anyway.
Gruman's argument is that the Android community has been abusing the patent system to copy other companies' innovations. He charges that “they use patents that are part of the technology standards to pressure competitors, which is a fundamental violation of the principles of fair, reasonable, and nondiscriminatory (FRAND) licensing that companies agree to follow when their patents are accepted as part of a technical standard.” Apple's patents are not and never have been part of a standard. The company has every right not to license their patents, and keep all the profit for themselves.
This move by Apple forces others to innovate. Gruman believes this is much better in the long run for both Apple's competitors and the market as a whole. Apple's victorious pursuit of legal redress, in this and other cases, “has forced the Android market to rethink its usual strategy of deriving its products from the work of others,” he notes. As a result, we get the three Samsung products mentioned earlier, which “bring real innovation to the table.”
So does this Apple victory stifle innovation – or encourage it? And who really won? To make matters even more confusing, the Wall Street Journal finds another winner in this case: Microsoft. The argument here is that “Microsoft was the company to 'think different' and create a mobile operating system 'for the rest of us' – i.e. an alternative to Apple's vision.” Since the Android market seems to have gotten in the habit of ripping off Apple innovations and giving them away, so this argument goes, Apple had to sue to make it more expensive to use Android software. “With Android seeming less 'free,' handset makers now have more incentive to get behind real innovation, such as Microsoft's promising but negligibly patronized operating system,” the WSJ proclaims.
If the WSJ has found an extra winner in this case, Robert X. Cringely has found an extra loser: consumers. He introduces his topic by describing the last time he rented a car, and explaining that most of the important controls were all where he expected them to be, and worked in the way he expected them. “It did take me a few minutes to find the lights...Otherwise, though I'd never driven that car before, I was able to operate it immediately...If that car design had been software that was patented by, say, Apple, I might still be in the parking lot trying to figure out how to get the damned thing into reverse,” Cringely wrote.
He states that the patent system needs to be revised, and says that the problem isn't lack of innovation; it's that consumers want more of the same thing. “Trust me, Apple has nothing on Samsung when it comes to innovation. The problem is that people want iPhones and phones that look and feel like iPhones. They don't actually want innovation,” Cringely argues. He thinks this isn't necessarily a bad thing; “More innovation isn't necessarily better,” he states, when you need to learn a new way to do the same thing on every different device you pick up. “There's no need to reinvent the steering wheel, either,” he concludes.
I'm not entirely convinced by those who say this ruling stifles innovation. Yes, our patent system probably needs some kind of overhaul; many patents exist for items that aren't truly innovations, or even improvements that aren't obvious (one requirement of a patent). But forcing companies to innovate on some level is no bad thing. After all, the steering wheel HAS been reinvented over its long history, and more than once. Consider these improvements: the addition of a horn, power steering, the ability to tilt and telescope, storing an airbag that deploys to save the driver's life, and probably many others that I'm forgetting. All things considered, I'd much rather be driving the most modern car than a rip-off of the Model T – no matter how many people are driving Model Ts. What do you think? Feel free to comment below.
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