In this fight, only the lawyers win
The courtroom battle in California between Apple and Samsung increasingly resembles a schoolyard spat. Frankly, it’s about time both sides grew up. By Craig Wilson.
It sounds trite, but in the growing litany of lawsuits between the world’s major consumer electronics manufacturers, the only real winners are the lawyers. Although patents have a place, particularly in the early days of any new technology, they’re ill-equipped to deal with one of the inevitable consequences of innovation: the best ideas will always be copied.
The legal battles are also laden with an inherent irony. Every big consumer device manufacturer has, at some point, copied an attribute of a competitor’s device. Companies would do well to keep in mind the old adage about imitation and flattery. If you’ve done something better than anyone else, it won’t be long before it’s copied or mimicked in some way.
Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (Parc) knows this only too well. A research and development centre founded in 1970, Xerox Parc is responsible for innovations such as Ethernet, the graphical user interface and the humble computer mouse. But very few people know Xerox for any of these inventions.
Apple lifted the mouse — actually first invented by Douglas Engelbart but refined by Parc — and graphical user interface wholesale from Xerox, which later sued Apple over the matter at the same time Apple was suing Microsoft, accusing it of the same intellectual thievery. Oh, delicious irony!
China’s Huawei got its start replicating Cisco routers. While there’s nothing laudable about reverse-engineering and ripping off another company’s products, Huawei now makes budget smartphones that are helping force down prices from other manufacturers and getting people in developing markets online.
That’s not to say pilfering other companies’ innovations is morally defensible, only that it is inevitable and does — at least sometimes — lead to beneficial outcomes, if not for the wronged company, then certainly for consumers.
Where companies have succeeded in their attempts to have products pulled from shelves in certain markets, consumers have lost out on choice, and the companies themselves have lost out on the incentive to innovate that comes from losing ground to competitors.
Copying isn’t just cheaper than innovating; it also provides a guaranteed market. Assuming that the copycat product is either as good as or vastly cheaper than the product it’s replicating.
The practice is so prolific across the board that pharmaceutical firm Pfizer has its own companies producing generic versions of its own patented drugs. The generic market is lucrative because consumers want cheaper alternatives. Rather than moan about other companies ripping it off, Pfizer entered the fray.
Of course, there are those who will pay a premium for brand names and the assurances that come with them, which is why supermarkets can continue to carry name brands next to their house brands and make money off both.
The ongoing Samsung and Apple patent battle is so absurd the judge has asked that the two companies’ CEOs talk to each other at least once telephonically before the jury begins its deliberations on the matter.
It’s the equivalent of a referee asking two team captains to calm their players, shake hands and make up. Only this isn’t a high school football game; it’s a dispute between two of the world’s biggest consumer technology companies.
Rather than fighting over who thought of what first, and trying to get each other’s products banned in various markets, Apple and Samsung should be trying to outdo each other by creating the best products and the best ecosystems to tie them to.
Apple didn’t invent any of its best-selling products. There were digital music players before the iPod, smartphones before the iPhone and tablet computers before the iPad. What Apple did was create the most compelling versions of these devices.
Now that Samsung is beginning to catch up, and in some instances overtake, Apple in the contest for dominance of the phone and tablet market, the US company should be focusing all its efforts on building the next generation of irresistible devices. That’s what got Apple where it is in the first place, not engaging in petty battles over who invented rounded corners on icons. — (c) 2012 NewsCentral Media