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  • Apple and Bombast

    December 6th, 2011

    So there is that quote from Steve Jobs in Walter Isaacson’s authorized biography, one that expresses outrage over Google’s alleged theft of iOS technology. Jobs supposedly told former Google CEO Eric Schmidt: “I don’t want your money. If you offer me $5 billion, I don’t want it. I’ve got plenty of money. I want you to stop using our ideas in Android, that’s all I want.”

    Did Jobs really say that to Schmidt? Did it perhaps happen during that famous meeting at an outdoor coffee shop near Apple headquarters? Well, the meeting did occur, since there are plenty of photographs showing the two men apparently engaged in animated conversation. But obviously there are no sound recordings to indicate what they were really talking about.

    At the same time, Apple, has reportedly granted a license to both IBM and Nokia to allow them to use U.S. Patent No. 7,469,381, entitled: “List Scrolling and Document Translation, Scaling, and Rotation on a Touch-Screen Display.” As the title implies, this is a key iOS patent governing the way the multitouch interface operates, one of Apple’s crown jewels. More interesting is that Samsung was allegedly offered a license, but didn’t take them up on it.

    Samsung has, of course, been the subject of a number of lawsuits from Apple over alleged infringement of patents covering a host of mobile technologies. You’d think Samsung would have been eager to take Apple up on this offer, but they, of course, didn’t.

    But doesn’t this strike you as curious? Samsung is perhaps the largest vendor of smartphones based on Google’s Android platform. Yet Apple, despite the very public and very angry statements attributed to Steve Jobs, was perfectly willing to license at least some technology to them anyway.

    Now one patent doesn’t mean that Apple is giving away a significant amount of iOS intellectual property to a Google licensee. At the same time, licensing a technology also affirms that Apple owns the rights, and that would surely help shore up their case with regard to other intellectual property issues. But there’s that huge contradiction between what Steve Jobs said and what Apple is actually doing behind the scenes. It appears, as well, that Apple and Samsung have tried to negotiate their way out of the patent dispute.

    But don’t forget that Jobs was, among all his amazing abilities, a consummate salesperson. He knew how to devise the right pitch for the proper circumstance, and you can be assured he rehearsed his public statements carefully before they were delivered. This is particularly true for those famous Macworld Expo keynotes, where Jobs rehearsed over and over again to perfect the presentation.

    So when he makes a statement that appears to be seething with anger, you wonder whether he was just  shooting from the hip, speaking out of pique, or whether the outburst that Isaacson quoted was carefully calculated to convey the appropriate message of bombast. It almost sounds like the professional wrestler or boxer who promises to vanquish an opponent. It’s very much sound and fury, and there may not be quite as much substance as you expect.

    I am sure that Apple is very unhappy when other companies deliver products that seem to mimic their patented technologies. When those companies succeed on the basis of using those technologies, Apple would hope they would attempt to do things differently. That makes sense too. Further, if Apple doesn’t defend their patents, they simply lose the right to defend them. That can hurt them going forward.

    This doesn’t mean that Google doesn’t have the right to develop the Android platform, or the right to license an OS with touch capability. But if Apple owl the rights to certain technologies, Google and their licensees need to work around them in some fashion to provide the features they won’t without infringing on someone’s patents.

    Of course, the validity of patents may be disputed. Google, Samsung and other companies may believe that some patents are so generic that no single company can claim exclusivity.

    One notable example is Amazon’s famous One Click ordering system. It seems so simple, so logical, that you can hardly believe any single company could claim exclusive rights. At the same time, Amazon, in 2000, licensed One Click to Apple, and they’ve reached similar deals with other companies.

    But it may also be true that paying the piper is often cheaper than filing a lawsuit that may have an uncertain outcome and take years to complete. In 2000, Apple wasn’t the financial powerhouse it is today, and perhaps they believed it was cheaper to just make a deal, and earn back the investment by making it easier for people to order new Macs and other gear.

    The same logic may also hold true for mobile handset makers who have paid Microsoft to license certain technologies related to the Android OS. Maybe Microsoft’s claims are bogus, but it was more expedient to just take the hit and write those checks. Indeed, it may be possible that Microsoft is earning more from those payments than they earn from the Windows Phone platform.

    And as long as patent reforms seem unable to address the claims that some patents shouldn’t have ben granted in the first place, you can expect the bombast and the lawsuits and the occasional licensing deals going forward.



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