Sunday, August 26, 2012

apple vs. samsung: what does it mean in the long run?

i am wondering how the outcome of this lawsuit will affect smartphones in general. regardless of my hatred of apple and its monopolistic, draconian practices (which i express here quite often), i see a possible twist ending to this story.

if you haven't heard, apple was just awarded (if the word can be used in this context) a compensation of around a billion dollars for patent infringes by samsung (basically, the jury found that samsung had copied apple designs). this is the biggest patent damage award in history, covering a long list of devices that infringed on the patents. the facts seem to be straight: samsung did copy some apple details and apple did patent these details, like patenting the rectangular shape with a bezel and slide to unlock, in addition to other frivolous ideas. despite these patents, the jury didn't seem to have done a good job, as detailed in this blog post at Groklaw. the judgement, of course, is still open to appeal and the sort, so it may not be the end of the story.

there are a few points i'd like to discuss here. first, the amount of damages is not realistic (note, i wrote this part before reading groklaw's post, which explains why the amount is so high, thanks to super-informed jurors), but not the principle. i don't believe the amount reflects apple's "losses" or samsung's profits from said infringement - think of it like this: if samsung didn't actually imitate apple, would apple have made a extra billion in profit? profit - not revenue: even at apple's inflated margin, they will need around 2.5 billion in sales to make a billion in profit. i doubt that. i also doubt that anyone who buys a samsung device thinks they're buying an apple one (or an apple knock-off). people are caring less about what they buy because both device platforms effectively deliver the same experience: touch screen, funky interfaces, app stores, etc. if i want facebook, instagram and maps, either device will deliver. unless apple manages to patent the smart phone experience, they can't corner that market forever. so my point is this: a billion in damages is not realistic.

the second point i want to discuss is the actual ruling, and how it relates to the patent laws in the us. the bottom line is this: samsung did copy apple patented ideas, and that gives apple the right to stop them. apple, in their turn, copied other companies (they have stood on shoulders of giants, if you will). why aren't they sued by them? because those giants simply didn't patent their ideas. they weren't assholes, you see. a presenter on TED showed multi-touch a year before the first iphone was out, with pinch to zoom and all that. but TED presenters are usually the nice sort, more interested in humanity's welfare than making money, so they didn't patent. in fact, to protect from bogus patents like apple's, a lot of scientists use open source licenses, creative commons or other open platforms to publish their ideas (which roughly means "here, copy this, make changes to it, profit from it, but on one condition: whatever changes you make, you release on the same terms"). when i say apple's patents are bogus, i don't mean they don't own them or profit from them, i mean they didn't really invent them; they were just the first to patent them. however, according to the law, even such profiteering allows apple to protect "its" intellectual property and its ability to profit from it. this case just reiterates an oft repeated complaint in the tech world: the us patent law is broken. apple are not to blame in this; it's the law itself that allows this kind of behavior.

the third point, which i hope will come true one day, was inspired by what one of the jurors said "Nokia is still selling phones. BlackBerry is selling phones. Those phones aren't infringing. There are alternatives out there" (complete article here). this, amongst other things, highlights the relative ignorance of a set of common people to make judgements about something as complex as technology patents. the ignorance is in the nature of the decision: it's not samsung that's being punished, it's the android os on which it runs. the fact that nokia or blackberry are presented as alternatives to ios is laughable; there really isn't an alternative to ios other than android. what the juror was practically saying is: you either buy this monopolistic device, or get kicked in the face with a shitty blackberry. the juror also misses out on a much more fundamental point: competition creates better products, not litigation. i'd argue that without android, ios would be no where near where it is today (things like useable notifications, cloud backup and storage, siri and others were available on android devices before ios). so a possible outcome is that manufacturers steer away from android, or others including a focus by manufacturers on the market outside the us (in the uk a judge basically made fun of apple for their lawsuit against samsung there), a general user migration to wp7 or 8, or cross-license from apple to phone manufacturers. however, there is another, more exciting aspect.

for argument's sake, i will use the modern view of the smartphone as represented by the iphone, which came out in 2007. the concept of said iphone - touch screen with icons and apps - was revolutionary in 2007. it's still pretty nifty today, and to apple, extremely profitable. that interface has been the defacto standard for a smartphone experience, and despite some cosmetic enhancements since 2007, remains essentially the same. in technology years, that's ancient! if android is shut down through litigation because their phone is too similar to ios, this may force the market to come up with a new, completely different (and hopefully, litigation-free) way for mobile computing. that's what i hope it'll mean for smartphone consumer in the long run: a completely new way of doing mobility. i can't even imagine what that can be, but if in 2006 you'd asked me how i could improve my nokia e61, i would've probably mentioned a bigger keyboard or something like that, not a touchscreen device with no copy-paste. so how can i improve on the current model? i don't know. but imagine this: think of what the iphone did the mobility experience, then imagine a revolution of a similar magnitude to the current touchscreen model. amazing, no?