As I write this column, the iPhone 5 (or whatever it’ll be called) is hours away from being announced. While it’s not possible for me to get in any more details (the magazine goes into print NOW and unfortunately Apple doesn’t care two hoots about my deadline), next week’s column will go into explicit detail on the all-new iOS device, its new features and exactly what impact it will now have on the competition and the consumer.
Dwarfing the new iPhone
Yet, even as the launch of a new iPhone is once again a big event – it’s dwarfed by what all has been happening in the world of mobiles in the past month. The very business of mobiles is about to change forever. Today, a new phone launch and what goes into it may not be formulated by scientists and engineers, but dictated by lawyers and litigators.
It’s a technological abyss where innovation and creativity may no longer be the driving force – rather patents and trademarks will be the force majeure. The Samsung Galaxy S3 is already being called the first smartphone designed exclusively by lawyers, right down to the last screw. Soon, that might become a standard. To understand how we’ve reached this stage, we’ve got to dig a little into history. This is a story with many characters, companies, rivalries, past history and a stake of a multibillion dollar personal device market. At stake is the future of many brands as well as us, the consumer. Let’s start this intriguing tale from the start.
Bombing and confusion
In 2006, Google’s then CEO Eric Schmidt sits on Apple’s board of directors. A short while later, Google comes up with Android as a mobile OS. Steve Jobs considers Android a stolen and copycat product and threatens to go ‘thermonuclear’ on Google. With Apple winning a verdict of $1.05 billion against Samsung, consider that thermonuclear bomb dropped!
While it sounds like typical corporate warfare – the implications here are many as is the confusion around this verdict. Let’s take up the most critical questions that are popping up from all quarters.
That’s a good question. With so many other Android phone makers, why single out Samsung? Well – it’s called maximum impact through a slightly softer target. Worldwide, Samsung is Apple’s biggest competition, and hitting them hard helps. This is mainly a proxy war on Google through whipping boy Samsung. It’s easier to take on Samsung than it is to take on Google.
Is the verdict final? did Samsung pay Apple in 30 trucks full of nickels? Nope, Samsung can still appeal. And many feel that the jury verdict is flawed and came in too quickly in a case as complicated as this. Thus, till the fat lady sings... And, about the 30 trucks of nickels worth a billion dollars as payment to Apple – that was a typical but very well circulated Internet rumour.
Does Apple really need $1.05 billion?
Putting aside the fact that you can’t be ‘too’ rich, this really isn’t about money. Apple wants others to not copy its design and methodology in making devices and this sends a clear message out to all. It’s not about protecting its current portfolio – but Apple devices of the future. In fact, Apple was able to achieve its true intention way before the verdict. Most companies made special efforts in the last one year to steer clear from anything ‘Applish’.
Samsung Can’t sell phones at all?
Nah! This mainly concerns Samsung phones that are already end of life – old phones that date back a year or more. So while there are financial implications for Samsung – it really doesn’t hurt their current and future portfolio much.
Does Apple have the most patents? Far from it. They actually bring up the rear end. In the mobile sector of patent families – Samsung has around 32,000, Microsoft holds about 9,000 and Apple has about 1,900 and mainly in the user interface area (exactly what they sued for). Thus having very few patents, Apple tends to defend its turf hard. Very hard!
with so many patents, will Samsung & others...? Yes, they will and are. Counter suits, serious allegations and more patent litigation is now in court more than ever before. Samsung, Motorola and many others are hitting back. In fact, the rumour mill is strong that Samsung will have multiple points to sue Apple on the iPhone 5, including use of LTE (long-term evolution).
Aren’t patent wars bad for innovation?
Good point. You go to the top of the class for that one. It truly does. Patent wars and litigation slow everybody down, time is wasted in courts rather than in R&D, and most scientists and innovators are usually looking over their shoulder rather than cracking the next big thing. Even Apple founder Steve Wozniak feels that the fallout of patent wars is less innovation and more expensive products. And while Samsung and Google and Apple slug it out – companies like Microsoft and Nokia may just be able to pick up the gauntlet and run fast – taking away market share from both OS bases.
What happens now?
There are two scenarios that may take shape in the future. The first would be that the mobile and device business becomes a boring little place where every company treads carefully around the other and bring out ‘safe’ products. The other could be a thriving eco-system where there are no copycat ‘me-too’ products and each company goes into overdrive with fantastic new innovations that are real game changers. I’m truly hoping for the latter but bracing for the former!
Rajiv Makhni is managing editor, Technology, NDTV, and the anchor of Gadget Guru, CellGuru and Newsnet 3. Follow Rajiv on Twitter at twitter.com /RajivMakhni
From HT Brunch, September 16
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