The feud between Apple and Samsung reached a milestone this week with a jury delivering a verdict favouring Apple in one major lawsuit. The response from both parties was quick and predictable. Samsung called the verdict a “loss for the American consumer”, while Apple’s Tim Cook heralded it as “an important day … for innovators everywhere”. I am pretty sure they are both exactly wrong.
Here in short are the standard arguments:
On the side of patents and copyright is the claim that without such protections the creators of new technologies and designs will be denied the reward for their work. Knock-offs with zero “innovation” cost will swamp the market, ultimately killing off the innovators.
On the other side is the claim that what has been lost is consumer choice, the selection agent in product evolution. Without the crucible of competition customers lose out in the long run.
I do not think either of them applies. The real issue is that old question — cui bono? — but applied in the opposite sense. Stay with me and we’‘ll get to that, but first a look at the proffered justifications.
Regarding this business about stifling innovation and what not, a dirty truth must be admitted: Apple is not very innovative.
Computers, operating systems, online music stores, MP3 players, phones with apps… all existed before Apple started offering them in roughly the same form as others. Apple’s design is undoubtedly interesting, almost always more so than that of others, but not due to some startling innovation (with rare exceptions like the iPod’s scroll wheel). If anything, Apple nearly went out of business when they tried the solo route, back when they had their own operating system (kernel and the layer on top of it; now referred to as Mac OS Classic) and their own processor (PowerPC) to run it on. In design, Apple’s departures from the high roads of traditional design have given us brushed metal, candy bar buttons and their current ill-conceived flirtation with skeuomorphism as eye candy. Nor are Apple’s products very reliable. The software is buggy and the hardware often fails (to be fair, not more so than that of competitors).
No verdict that protects these achievements seems particularly beneficial to innovation (i.e., innovation as seen by Apple and Tim Cook, as an independent and individual activity).
Now consider Samsung (at times a proxy for Google) and their righteous claims of consumer protection.
We are “open” claims Google because everyone has access to Android. True, perhaps, on a set of floppy disks. But on their mobile phone? What runs on that mobile phone is a decision made by the telephone company. So much for open.
Samsung also offer that users benefits when they have a choice between Samsung’s icons and Apple’s. Surely, they and their acolytes ask with well executed incredulity, nobody can copyright rounded rectangular icons? Samsung’s righteousness would be convincing if not for the many counterclaims they have themselves advanced. It would also help if they could demonstrate that they actually care about the user (consumer, if you prefer). Which leads to my point.
Figuring out what would help the user and building that, and competing on that ground, is hard business and the model of competing on the value of the product (the standard story of laissez-faire capitalism) while valuable for the user is fraught with danger for the corporation. Which is one reason why most corporations in the real world make a beeline for monopoly or duopoly safety, or labour to erect or exploit barriers to entry that lock the user into their product.
The talk about “innovation vs consumer choice” is moot because Samsung and the like are just plain not as interested in bringing the best experience to the user as they are in the much safer path to survival by being arms suppliers to telcos. They copy not because Apple is innovative and they are not, but because, in their mind, copying is good enough for their users.
To make Apple’s point, I tweeted this picture a while ago, which I mocked up using images from a TUAW post:
In case it isn’t clear, on the left are Samsung phones up until the arrival of the iPhone, immediately after which came the new range from Samsung seen on the right. But my argument in this post is that this picture is not the issue even if the case it makes were legitimate. The real picture, unfortunately impossible to mock up as easily, would show the world of the mobile phone user before the iPhone, filled with tens, perhaps hundreds of poorly differentiated models of phones, with an assortment of prices, discounts, rate plans, user interfaces, contracts, obligations, hard-wired limitations and features adjudicated and unlocked by the mobile provider at arbitrary charge. Little about that world served a user’s best interests.
However, in this new picture, the world after the iPhone would look much the same as the world before (just a whole lot prettier due to the interface duplication). To the right of the iPhone would lie the same mess of rate plans, pricing, musical chairs of features, and other rot. The question, once again, is who benefits? The patent answer (pun attempted) is “telcos and other entrenched entities”, not the user.
In summary, what is at stake is:
Not Innovation: which, in opposition to the self-serving notion promoted by Apple, is really a long history of theft. It is due to an endless cycle of “higher cribbing” (to crib a term, attributed to Thomas Mann, from the aforelinked to article) that we have anything valuable at all.
Not Openness or User Benefit from Choice: Android today effectively serves as the weapon of telcos that want to take back ground lost to Apple when it comes to user freedom (the confusion of “open” with “free” is not new, as Richard Stallman has pointed out many times: “open” as in “open source” is merely about the freedom of developers while “free” attends to the ultimate freedom of the users). Nor will users benefit from choice when the alternatives have no intention of competing on the criteria of benefit to the user.
User Experience: The real value of the jury verdict, the punitive punishment of Samsung, is this: Apple VP Katie Cotton claimed after the verdict that Apple makes “products to delight customers”. She is right. And I would add: nobody else in the space, and I really do mean nobody else, does that, and most importantly, cares to do that. I suspect nobody else even has much of a clue on how to do that. It is lower cribbing that is the problem and earned its just desserts in this decision, even if through the dirty weapon of patent and copyright law.