The smartphone space is turning into a textbook example of why patents not only do not promote innovation as their supporters claim so insistently (though never with any proof to corroborate that claim), but actively block the further development of a field. Just look at the diagram at the bottom of this post from Techdirt to get an idea of how hopelessly entangled things are.
In fact, that diagram is already out of date: yet more lawsuits have been filed in this market, including this one from yesterday:
In the latest intellectual property suit to hit the smartphone industry, Apple is suing Samsung, alleging the Galaxy line of phones and tablets infringe on a number of the company's patents and trademarks.
But even in a field where ridiculous lawsuits alleging infringement are fast becoming the norm this one really takes the biscuit:
"It's no coincidence that Samsung's latest products look a lot like the iPhone and iPad, from the shape of the hardware to the user interface and even the packaging," an Apple representative told Mobilized. "This kind of blatant copying is wrong, and we need to protect Apple's intellectual property when companies steal our ideas."
Well, let's leave aside the minor fact that Apple pretty much copied its characteristic Lisa/Macintosh GUI from Xerox PARC, and look at what exactly it is claiming that Samsung "copied":
"Samsung's Galaxy Tab computer tablet also slavishly copies a combination of several elements of the Apple Product Configuration Trade Dress," Apple says in its suit, noting that Samsung's tablet, like Apple's, uses a similar rectangular design with rounded corners, similar black border and array of icons.
Got that? A rectangular design: is Apple seriously claiming that it invented the rectangle? "Rounded corners": ditto – hardly an earth-shattering idea. "Black border" - the monitor I'm using to write this post on has a black border: does that mean it copied Apple too? And finally "array of icons": well, speaking as a mathematician, I can confirm that when you put objects in rows and columns they do tend to come out as an array – not to mention the fact that every GUI since, well, Xerox PARC, has used this arrangement because it's so obvious and natural.
There are a couple of interesting things about this latest move by Apple. The first is that Apple shows here that it is worried not just about the smartphone market, but tablets too – even though there are barely any serious rivals to the iPad out there yet. But it can clearly see that what happened in the world of smartphones – the erosion of its early leadership – is about to happen with tablets as Android models pullulate.
More revealing, though, is the fact that, as I've indicated above, the things that Apple claims Samsung "copied" are so self-evidently trivial and obvious. That Apple has sunk to the level of claiming infringement of rectangles underlines the key point here: Apple is scared witless by the rise of the Android ecosystem, and is now using plan "Z", aka the "Cornered Rat" strategy: do anything, no matter how stupid or self-defeating, because it's better than just sitting back and watching while this kind of stuff happens:
Apple is also being rapidly eclipsed by Android devices, though Kantar notes that the introduction in the US of its iPhone to the Verizon network provided an uplift to sales, so that it actually increased its market share there. But in other countries, notably the UK, Germany, France and Japan, the iPhone saw double-digit falls in market share – which could mean that even if it is selling more phones, it is not growing the number as quickly as the market is expanding.
This is exactly what many of us were predicting, simply on the basis of the fact that Apple is closed and Android is (mostly) open. As I wrote the other day, openness is inevitable, because it just works better at every level – technical, economic and social.
Apple is doomed – not, of course, to commercial failure, but to become a mere niche player serving its passionate and largely uncritical fans. An extremely profitable one, but a niche player nonetheless. Its latest risible legal action is simply a sign that even Apple now realises this.
Update 1: the full list of Apple patents are available - they're as ridiculous as you would expect.
Update 2 Thanks to brianinwood in the comments below for pointing out this interesting piece of information:
According to LG, Apple has stolen the concept and ideas of the Prada phone, which resembles the iPhone in both look and feel. However, the similarities for the phones end there, as the Prada and iPhone have a variety of different features under the hood, such as the Prada's tri-band GSM support to the iPhone's quad-band, to name one very vague example.
This lawsuit in the making was originally a rumour but only a few days ago the head of LG Mobile Handset R&D Centre, Woo-Young Kwak, publicly announced the following statement:
"We consider that Apple copied the Prada phone after the design was unveiled when it was presented in the iF Design Award and won the prize in September 2006."
The key thing is that the LG Prada came out before the iPhone, and yet looks remarkably similar. So if anyone is "stealing" ideas and design, it is Apple from LG, not Samsung from Apple.
Update 3 This page is in German, but the pictures make the point about how designs draw on the past quite powerfully.