Apple’s Pyrrhic victory
It’s uncertain what Apple achieved through its court victory against Samsung Electronics last week, other than to give its Korean rival an enormous amount of cheap publicity while risking painting itself as the technology industry’s new bullyboy. By Duncan McLeod.
To understand the importance — and irony — of last week’s court victory by Apple, it’s necessary to go back to 1979. It was 33 years ago that a young Steve Jobs paid a visit to the Palo Alto Research Center (Parc), a research and development facility in Silicon Valley owned by Xerox.
Xerox Parc is renowned for having invented or been involved in the development of many of the technologies that continue to help shape the computer industry to this day. But it wasn’t Parc’s seminal work on Ethernet, laser printers or object-oriented programming that caught Jobs’s attention. Rather, it was a computer called the Alto. A curious little thing called a mouse controlled the computer. This allowed users to direct a visual pointer on a display powered by a graphical user interface (GUI) made up of on-screen pop-up windows. To Jobs, both the mouse and the GUI were revolutionary.
Details of what happened next are disputed, but most chroniclers tell of how Jobs ordered Apple to copy the technology and incorporate it into what would form the basis of the first Macintosh computer, released in 1984.
In short, Apple appropriated — stole, it could be argued — two of the pillars of modern personal computing and commercialised them. Xerox was too busy selling photocopier machines at the time to realise the significance of Parc’s inventions.
Skip forward 33 years, and the irony of Apple’s war with Samsung — and by proxy with Google and its Android operating system, which Jobs vowed to destroy — is hard to miss. Jobs made it clear he believed that Android, which powers most Samsung-made smartphones, was a rip-off of the iPhone’s software. His successor, Tim Cook, has taken up the anti-Android crusade with zeal. Cook this week applauded the court for determining that Samsung’s behaviour was “wilful” and for “sending a loud and clear message that stealing isn’t right”.
Perhaps Cook genuinely doesn’t see the double standard in this. But the fact is the IT industry has always moved forward based on companies cribbing each other’s ideas and innovating upon those ideas. It’s what Apple itself did with the GUI and the mouse and what Microsoft did with DOS and Windows.
When Apple introduced the iPhone five years ago, it was revolutionary. It upended an industry, sending rivals like Nokia and Research in Motion into a tailspin. But much has changed since 2007. Most significantly, Android has grown in leaps and bounds, with a range of companies, from Samsung to HTC, building powerful smartphones on the back of the software.
Apple is expected to take the wraps off a new iPhone in September. For now, though, a growing number of Android-powered smartphones, including Samsung’s flagship Galaxy S3, are arguably superior to the current iPhone model. Apple is no longer way out in front of the race as it was until fairly recently and the new iPhone will have to be special if it’s not going to fall further behind.
Of course, Apple’s war with Samsung is a proxy for its battle with what it really fears most: Google’s Android. It’s probably worried that what happened in the personal computer wars of the 1980s, where it ceded the market to Windows and became a niche player, will happen again, this time with Android.
The company is right to be fearful. But behaving like the industry’s new bullyboy, releasing the legal attack dogs at every turn, could backfire on it in the court of public opinion, especially if it continues to slip behind its rivals in innovation. — (c) 2012 NewsCentral Media