What the Samsapple trial means for innovation and progress

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I’d just like to say upfront that the Apple vs. Samsung circus currently taking place in the San Jose, California federal courthouse is absurd. It’s not about design elements or wireless patents. It’s about Apple getting whipped by Samsung — and Android.

IDC’s second quarter 2012 figures show Apple trailing Samsung, with 16.9% and 32.6% market share respectively. It might be that demand for the iPhone has cooled off with rumours of an imminent next release swelling, but the IDC indicates a 172.8% year-over-year growth for Samsung, compared to a solid, but significantly smaller 27.5% percent rise for Apple.

But, for Apple, this is bigger than just Samsung. It’s about Android. For the same quarter IDC shows Android dominating the mobile OS market with 68.1% (compared to 16.9% for iOS).

If Apple wins this landmark lawsuit, design elements and functionality on Android devices from other OEMs could also be threatened, forcing manufacturers to go back to the drawing board. In terms of software design elements, patent litigation is already changing the look and feel for Android end users. Earlier this year Nilay Patel from The Verge pointed out how patents such as patent #7,657,849 for slide-to-unlock, is changing Android end user experiences.

Forcing competition to go back to the drawing board is not necessarily a bad thing. Android adopters could use it as an opportunity to innovate. The trouble is, if the motivation behind innovation is to simply avoid a lawsuit, it could lead to ugly hacks — less intuitive software and unattractive hardware designs. It’s up to Judge Lucy Koh to decide if Apple is right to claim that Samsung manufactures “illegal iPhone knockoffs”, or if Apple’s design elements are prior art — a patent cannot claim something that already exists, nor can it claim something obvious.

The trial is getting ugly. It’s filled with he said, she said vitriol reminiscent of a marriage quarrel. The two companies are intimately connected, with Samsung providing chipsets, displays and Flash memory for the iPhone and iPad to Apple, its largest customer. Samsung is dragging some of its own 3G patents — which are actually considered FRAND industry standard inventions — into the fray which it claims Apple should be paying licensing fees for.

With the two companies so closely connected, one would assume one’s gain is automatically that of the others, but when Samsung started pushing out its own smartphones and tablets instead of simply being a component supplier, it became a threat to Apple’s bottom line.

The outcome of the trial affects all of us. 85% of phones sold in the last quarter were either an iPhone or an Android device. If Samsung wins outright, iPhones could become more expensive as Apple will have to fork over licensing fees for the patents Samsung is now putting on the table. It could also mean competitors can more easily get away with copying iPhone design elements or worse, become lazy innovators.

If Apple wins outright, Samsung pays billions and its products are pulled from US stores while it makes changes to its lineup. Then, we watch to see what becomes of other OEMs and Android.

Randy Giusto over at Innovation POV points out a Reuters diagram of some significant patent suits that have been going on since 2005 (notice all the OEMs using Android). As is usually the case, all of these have been settled out of court. Each company puts their patents on the table and figures out some kind of cross licensing agreement, pay their legal teams and walk away. It’s a good time to be a patent lawyer.

This time around, Apple and Samsung couldn’t come to an agreement on the value of each other’s patent portfolios.

In a kooky way, up to now, despite getting into litigation now again, companies have been able to maneuver within the confines of patent restrictions. Now, there will be legal precedent and it could actually put a real damper on things.

Giusto pretty much nails it when summing up the current patent landscape:

The problem is that because there is so much IP and patent turmoil today, brands are not making big leaps in innovation, or R&D, but are instead making tiny, conservative steps that are more evolutionary versus revolutionary. Yes, the iPhone and iPad were revolutionary when they debuted, and shook up existing product segments — smartphones and tablets were hardly new. However, since then Apple’s revisions to both platforms have been just that, revisions and not breakthrough enhancements. And the same can be said for all the brands participating in the Android camp as well. Every five years there has been a new smartphone leader, going back to the late 1990′s.

Innovation is clearly paying a price as all brands are now more cautious.

The outcome of the Apple vs. Samsung trial stands only to make things worse as brands are already treading lightly within the patent system. The patent system was supposed to be a good thing. It was supposed to reward — by means of a time limited monopoly on an invention — creative thinking and innovation. When a patent expires it becomes public domain, injecting new, well-documented, freely available knowledge into the world, that encourages new innovative products. It moves us forward as a society.

So, imagine being Apple and having to play by the rules of the US patent system that forces you to show your most innovative ideas — documented in detail — to the world, and to competitors, knowing that they have an expiration date. It must be unnerving, but it pushes Apple to continue to innovate and it pushes its competitors to innovate around patent limitations — or that’s the dream. Now, the world’s two biggest consumer electronics companies are in court going for each other’s jugular. It’s a fight for mobile supremacy, one that Android is currently winning. It’s become the norm. Instead of out-innovating each other, companies are aggressively launching offences to protect their market share. Don’t get me wrong, Apple has the right to protect its intellectual property, but it seems there is more going on beneath the surface. It will be interesting to see what the jury thinks at the end of this trial — is Apple trolling?

Patel wrote what many consider to be the definitive piece on the current patent system — its flaws and what can be done to fix it — and quoted an initially skeptical Thomas Jefferson as saying that the Patent Act of 1790 had “given a spring to invention beyond my conception.”

What would Jefferson say of what’s going on in San Jose today?

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