Apple's Wimpy Patent Suit Is Proof That It's Terrified Of Google

steve jobs eric schmidt AP

Apple spun its patent suit against Taiwanese mobile phone maker HTC yesterday as a way to protect itself from having its technology stolen.

That’s legitimate, and could be a good move for Apple on paper if it works out in the courts.

But in terms of perception, it’s really the latest sign from Apple that it is terrified of Google, whose Android operating system is becoming a formidable rival in the smartphone industry. This amid broader, intensifying competition between the two companies.

The biggest sign of Apple’s worry is that this is a war that Apple should be proud to win in the market, not in a courtroom.

Apple should continue to grow its position in the smartphone business by being better than its competitors, out-innovating them, out-designing them, out-pricing them, out-marketing them, and out-selling them, using patents as defensive protection.

Instead, it’s going on the offence with patents, not just products, which reeks of fear. As Apple blogger John Gruber reiterated yesterday on his site Daring Fireball, “If you can’t beat ’em, sue ’em.” He added, “I feel this suit against HTC is a terrible mistake.”

Other symptoms of Apple’s Googlephobia:

  • It’s suing HTC, but it’s really suing over Google. Apple could always sue Google later, but it’s not starting with Google.
  • It’s going after the weakest, first. HTC just happens to be the smallest (and the best) manufacturer of phones based on Google’s Android OS. This versus suing a bigger company like Motorola, which likely has a much deeper patent arsenal to use against Apple.
  • Apple is suing over some lame patents. Engadget’s Nilay Patel, a former attorney, has gone through the 20 patents in an excellent post. (You can also flip through some diagrams here.) Some patents don’t even have anything to do specifically with mobile phones. But this is one way patent suits work: Throw everything against the wall, see what sticks.
  • It’s just using the suit to mess up Android’s development and make HTC nervous. It’s not like Apple is a patent-troll shell company that needs these suits for income. It’s not like the government is going to shut down everyone’s Android phone already in the market. It’s purely an anti-competitive suit. Which, for consumers, just limits innovation.

Again, it’s perfectly legitimate for Apple to sue HTC, Google, or anyone — just as it’s perfectly legitimate for Nokia or anyone else to sue Apple. That’s part of doing business.

But it just makes Apple look wimpy. Which doesn’t strike us as how Steve Jobs wants his company to be perceived.

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