13 August 2013

Apple vs Samsung: he said, she said, so what will Obama do now?

The war between Apple and its main rival in smartphones market is continuing under full steam. As one of the analysts says "In a way, the noose is tightening. Apple step by step actually is gaining leverage against Samsung".

To remind you, this patents war was started by Apple several years ago. The indisputable genius of Steve Jobs, all-embracing as it was, expressed itself in the area of patents in a quite malicious form. Not that he was the only one to act so, but reading several of patents submitted by Apple, one cannot easily rid oneself of the thought that the main idea behind the patents was to create a lot of trouble to any possible competitor, more than to protect own intellectual rights.

One of the two patents mentioned in the above linked BBC article is called Steve Jobs patent. When you read it carefully, the full measure of vicious premeditation behind this patent becomes clear pretty quickly. Describing the basic functionality of a touch screen, the patent is presenting a stark choice before any manufacturer producing touch screen devices, with this multitude of manufacturers having to choose between ceasing to exist or being forced on their collective knees by Apple, having to pay prohibitive and totally unfair royalties. That Samsung, as the current chief rival of Apple, was chosen as the first target, is only telling the whole story that much clearer.

The insidious practice of patent litigation is having an enormous impact on many industries, but nowhere else it shows as acutely as in software development. A graph showing the growth of litigation cases in US software industry from this excellent article:

I have chosen software as a domain close to my heart. Literally billions of dollars are being tied up and uncounted millions are spent in legal fees in software industry alone, in many cases effectively paralyzing the progress and development, and the situation is dire indeed. Many people, among them some outstanding achievers, are questioning the mere idea of patenting software. And there is a lot of common sense in what they are saying. But the legal industry is up in arms against them (no surprise here).

Of course, Apple founders didn't restrict themselves to software patents, creating (and using to their benefit) absurdities such as patent on the tablet form factor or, like in this case, patent on "Audio I/O headset plug and plug detection circuitry" - a piece of metal and plastic that certainly existed way before Apple patented it and its use. From a purely moral point of view Apple has no more rights to the plug or to the various things to do with the plug than any other plug manufacturer or user, but morals and common sense don't have a lot to do with the patents lawfare, unfortunately. The one who first stakes out the territory gets to be the de facto owner of the intellectual property. Fair? No. Lawful? Apparently yes.

The current administration definitely recognizes the rising dangers to American inventiveness and American industry, witness the Patent Assertion and U.S. Innovation report produced for the administration. Not sure, though, after reading it, that all necessary measures are being taken to prevent the skullduggery in the patent wars.

While we are discussing the case of Apple vs Samsung, it is significant that, in spite of the US International Trade Commission (ITC) earlier ruling against Apple in one of the several ongoing patent squabbles, the White House overturned the decision. Carried out, the ITC decision would have prevented several Apple products, such as AT&T-sold models of the iPhone 4, iPhone 3, iPhone 3GS as well as the iPad 3G and iPad 2 3G from being imported and sold in US. Granted, all the models mentioned above are of the older generations, but still the ban, if implemented, would have caused some financial damage to Apple. The BBC article states that "President Barack Obama's trade representative has now vetoed that decision because of its "effect on competitive conditions in the US economy"."

Now, if we follow up this call for support of "competitive conditions", it will be interesting to see what happens with the Samsung products that should be banned in United States because of the latest ITC rulings against Samsung. Logically, White House should veto these decisions as well, as harmful to the competitive conditions and adversely impacting the market prices. Will it? The next few days will show.

As customers, we should not be indifferent to the goings-on in courts regarding the patents. Every cent spent by the manufacturers on litigation in the enormous legal fees and in related expenses will be paid by us as part of the product price. But this price increase is only the tip of the iceberg.

Going to absurd measures to prevent one's competitors from using this or another innovation is a very effective way to slow down the technological progress, to suppress free flow of knowledge and know-how, and the companies that are indulging in this kind of malicious behavior will (already are, in fact, as the Apple vs Samsung war shows) find themselves on the business end of the stick in many situations. Every time your competitor prevents you from using something new, you have to go to a considerable expense to redesign your product in order to circumvent the court decision. As a result, we, the customers, pay more for the products and get the products later than planned. Bad all around.

I wish that all the above could be said only about smartphones - a relatively benign appliances. But the situation is largely the same with most things we use - the cars we drive, the planes we fly around in, the elevators - the kinds of appliances that could be fateful to us, and not necessarily in a positive way. Just because some legal brawler withheld an innovation or two from his competitors...

Time for the governments to get involved: to turn the heat on the legal skulduggery, and allow people to cooperate inventively and fruitfully, instead of channeling their talents into creation of malicious legal traps for their competitors.

Be nice to see the current US administration doing something in this regard. Will it?