Well, Apple won a billion dollars last week, after a jury ruled that Samsung had copied a handful of features from the iPhone.And that’s good for Apple and its lawyers and shareholders.
And it’s expensive for Samsung and other companies.
But let’s be honest.
It’s bad for consumers.
Because to the extent that Apple persists in pursuing this lame-o (and totally un-Apple-like) competitive strategy, it will result in consumers having fewer excellent non-Apple smartphone choices.
And, arguably, it will also gradually teach Apple engineers that they don’t have to win by designing the best products in the marketplace anymore, something Apple has done spectacularly to date, but, instead, by siccing lawyers on anyone who copies something Apple did in some earlier product.
To be clear: If Apple were enforcing patents on radical and unique new inventions that had taken many years and gazillions of dollars to develop and test–and if Apple required decades of protected sales revenue to recoup those investments–then the specter of the richest and most powerful company in the world suing a competitor over minor feature imitation might not be so disheartening.
But that’s not what’s going on here.
What’s going on here is this:
The richest and most powerful company in the world–a company that generates more cash in a day than most companies generate in a year–is suing a competitor for imitating some cool features, features that, arguably, shouldn’t have been patentable in the first place.
What are these features?
Well, let’s see…
- The ability to enlarge documents by tapping the screen (Tapping the screen to make something happen! How remarkably innovative!)
- Using square icons to denote “apps” (Square icons! Clearly competitors should be forced to make their app icons circular, or triangular)
- Having the product be rectangular in shape and white (Yes, that’s right. Apple was awarded money because a Samsung phone was rectangular and white)
- Having the product be rectangular in shape and black (Ditto.)
You get the idea.
Sorry, but even filing for patents on these features, let alone enforcing them, is beyond lame, especially for a company that is already so rich and powerful. Yes, the U.S Patent Office is partly responsible–imagine the laughter and disbelief among Apple’s lawyers when they were actually granted a patent on “rectangular and white.” But still…
As one designer, Bill Flora, put it in the New York Times last weekend, enforcing patents like this is like enforcing a patent on a “round steering wheel” in a car.
Imagine if the round steering wheel had been patented? Would consumers be forced to steer cars with triangle- or square-shaped steering wheels? And how about patenting the “four wheels” concept? Or the “wings” idea on a plane? Where does it stop?
And, again, this is all the more disheartening because it’s coming from a company whose iconic founder and CEO Steve Jobs boasted about how gifted Apple was at stealing other people’s excellent ideas:
“Picasso had a saying. Good artists copy. Great artists steal. And we have always been shameless about stealing great ideas.“
I understand how angry Apple was when then-Google CEO Eric Schmidt, an Apple board member, helped Google steal the iPhone idea and launch Android.
I understand that Apple may view its victory over Samsung as the first attack in what Steve Jobs promised would be “thermo-nuclear war” over this theft of the iPhone idea.
But how does Apple even begun to reconcile what Steve was boasting about in the interview above with the position it is taking with respect to Samsung’s imitation of a few of its ideas?
Apple can talk all it wants about how the legal victory somehow restores justice to the world.
And Apple shareholders can cheer the verdict because it made the stock go up, .
And Apple zealots can tell themselves that this is all about fairness and innovation.
But that doesn’t change the reality:
Apple suing competitors for copying minor features is not about “fairness” or “justice” or “innovation” or even money ($1 billion is chump change).
It’s just lame.