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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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    9 Responses to “Apple and Bombast”

    1. dfs says:

      I think it’s a mistake to focus too much on Apple, Samsung, or any other single corporation. The entire computing industry seems to be suffering from this bane of suits and countersuits as companies try to trip each other up, hold each other back, or gain some competitive edge. God knows I’m no lawyer, I’m looking at it from the standpoint of a bystander and an end consumer, but to my untrained eye most of the time it is worse than silly, this fascination with real or supposed patent rights has become an endemic disease that does nobody any real good and simply impedes the progress we all want to see. The proper place to fight these battles is in the marketplace, not the courtroom. And, for all my profound respect for Steve, I must say that I thought one of his most serious failings was his willingness to get caught up in these spats. They must have diverted a lot of time and energy he could have put to far better use.

      jfutral Reply:

      @dfs,

      So, by "free market" you really mean everyone else gets to use another companies product research and development for free?

      As a free-market, capitalist kind of guy myself, to my untrained eye this is exactly the system I want in place so that if I come up with an idea, develop that idea, and bring it to market I have a system in place to keep others from ripping me off.

      One of parts of the system I do think is broken at this point is that it favours those with the deepest pockets, not necessarily the ones who own the IP.

      As ugly as all this may seem, this is exactly why the systems exists, part of the checks and balances to protect a party from being ripped off as well as acquit someone from simply being accused of ripping someone off. The courts exist for dispute settlement.

      Is this the most efficient system for these kinds of disputes, especially as technology advances and gets more complex and convoluted? Probably not, but it is the system we have and it is needed. As someone who creates for a living, I am thankful that my work can be protected. And I am thankful the chance exists to prove I have not copied someone else's work and both situations can have an enforceable outcome.

      Otherwise, why bother creating, much try to enter the marketplace with my work.

      Joe

      jfutral Reply:

      @dfs,

      So when you say "The proper place to fight these battles is in the marketplace," you mean the only thing that matters is the end, not the means? "Free market" means everyone else gets to use another company's research and development for free?

      Joe

      jfutral Reply:

      Sorry about that. I thought I mucked up the first post. It needed to be shorter anyway.

      Joe

    2. immovableobject says:

      dfs wrote: "The proper place to fight these battles is in the marketplace, not the courtroom."

      Yes, so that companies without good ideas of their own can freely leverage other's R&D and design ideas to reduce their own costs, thereby allowing them to spend more on advertising or to undercut the originator's products on price while fooling naive customers into believing that the products are equivalent.

      Apple is wealthy enough to defend its patent portfolio, but there is no hope for smaller innovators if patents are to be ignored.

    3. Al says:

      Let's get away from blanket statements like "if I come up with an idea, develop that idea, and bring it to market I have a system in place to keep others from ripping me off". That doesn't advance the discussion. Nobody objects to that except that nut jobs who advocate for zero intellectual property rights.

      The point of contention is when is something patentable and when is it not. It is absolutely ridiculous that one-click ordering is patentable. The innovation was in the development of the hardware and software infrastructure that allowed one-click ordering to be implemented on a computer network. The one-click system is stupidly obvious. It's just 'blink once for yes, twice for no' implemented on a computer. [In fact, it's just 'blink once for yes'.]

      There is a host of these software patents that are mere computerized or automated implementations of standard manual practices. Anything that translates centuries old systems of filing and retrieving data (e.g. a library card catalog) into a computerized version should not be patentable. But certain dimwits at the patent office decided they were revolutionary and the Supreme Court ratified their stupidity.

      I used to think that software should just not be patentable. Period. But on second thought, there are software that are truly innovative or revolutionary. For example, software that understands natural language is a true innovation. Or, going into the realm of science fiction, software that lets you scan a novel into it then it generates a complete movie of the novel using realistic CGI and voice synthesis should be patentable. [Because I want someone to come up with that product.]

      jfutral Reply:

      @Al, "Let's get away from blanket statements like 'if I come up with an idea, develop that idea, and bring it to market I have a system in place to keep others from ripping me off'. That doesn't advance the discussion."

      No more so than "...but to my untrained eye most of the time it is worse than silly, this fascination with real or supposed patent rights has become an endemic disease that does nobody any real good and simply impedes the progress we all want to see. The proper place to fight these battles is in the marketplace, not the courtroom." which is part of what i was responding to.

      The court room is the only place for these disputes to be worked out in an enforceable manner, which includes supporting or striking "when is something patentable and when is it not" as determined by the patent office.

      Now, we can argue whether or not the courts are educated enough to settle the disputes. But I would argue they are certainly no less educated than the market and at least in a position for each party to elucidate their positions in a rational manner.

      "Obvious" is subjective. Which is why someone has to rule if something is or isn't. If "obvious' was an objective quality there would be no argument. It would be "obvious".

      I'm in the same corner with you regarding software. I used to be totally anti-software patent, too. But I'll be darned if I can come up with a reliable system to quantify that quality.

      And as someone who makes his living in a creative field, as cool as it sounds, I hope your book to movie software is never invented! Too many people would be out of work, including me!

      Joe

    4. dfs says:

      Yeah, yeah, of course I know that there is such a thing as legitimate patent issues, and courts exist to give redress in genuine cases of infringement. But let’s look at the flip side. We all know there are certain companies that don’t engage in any legitimate business and exclusively exist to buy up patents so they can launch lawsuits, sometimes very dubious ones on very tenuous grounds (and even nuisance lawsuits take time and money to defend). We also know, or at least have strong suspicions, that legitimate corporations routinely make acquisitions merely to acquire patent rights so that they can sue their competitors in the hope of hamstringing them. In fact such tactics appear to be pervasive in the industry. When I said let the market decide, what I specifically meant is that if Android is as lousy as its critics say it is, the buying public will quickly notice this and gravitate to iOS devices, so Google will ultimately get its comeuppance in the marketplace. Look at it this way: back in the mid-1980’s, if Xerox had chosen to sue Steve and Woz for appropriating such general ideas as the graphic user interface, desktop metaphors, and the mouse, the Mac would never have seen the light of day. Back then, it probably never crossed Xerox’s mind to do this. In today’s poisoned atmosphere, launching a suit would be almost a reflex action. And as an end consumer, I can’t help thinking that I’m the ultimate victim.

      jfutral Reply:

      @dfs, Except that the Steve's exchanged stock options with Xerox for their IP, so even then no one "appropriated" anything. Don't believe everything you read, particularly lore.

      No one goes to court just because there is a genuine issue of infringement. People go to court to have the court determine if there is an issue of infringement. That's part of what courts do. Even in criminal cases.

      Are there people gaming the system? Sure. That's what _people_ do. I agree that these companies that exist to collect patents are more a blight than a service. But I'm willing to put up with them (until we can properly make them obsolete) as long as they are the exception and not the rule. Besides, the patents they own were developed by someone who got paid for their work by the dubious company or another company along the way. No one stole the patent.

      Patents and protecting people's hard work is not about whether something is a lousy product. And the market has "preferred" lousy products over excellent products in the past. The marketplace doesn't care about who put in the hard work to develop the product. That's not their role. In the end, you as the consumer would be the ultimate victim if innovation was NOT protected. No one would bother.

      That's what I think.
      Joe

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