A US jury has rubberstamped Apple’s exploitation of the patent system. But Samsung’s $1bn loss will cost consumers dear
A home-town jury has given Apple the world, or at least the United States, in its campaign to control the smart phone and tablet markets.
Samsung, which decisively lost the highest-profile case to date in Apple’s sue-everywhere strategy against the Android operating system, will surely appeal the verdict handed down the San Jose, California, federal court on Friday afternoon. And even if Samsung ultimately has to pay the $1bn judgement, the company can afford it.
But we’re likely to see a ban on many mobile devices from Samsung and other manufacturers in the wake of this case, as an emboldened Apple tries to create an unprecedented monopoly. If so, the ultimate loser will be competition in the technology marketplace, with even more power accruing to a company that already has too much.
The jury’s quick decision – just two days of deliberations in an immensely complex case, with more than 100 pages of instructions from the judge – surely means the panel members had made up their minds in the courtroom and spent most of their time in the jury room filling out a 20-page form of checkboxes and granular detail. And on almost every point that mattered, they gave Apple what it wanted. The jury tossed out virtually all of Samsung’s counter-claims against Apple for infringement on its own patents, and awarded no damages to Samsung.
Crucially, the jury found none of Apple’s patents invalid, despite substantial evidence that others anticipated many of the innovations that Apple put together when it released its first iPhone. This is a shame, because Apple’s abuse of our out-of-control patent system has given Apple its chief ammunition in its global campaign to destroy Google’s Android operating system, which Samsung (and many others) adopted for its smart phones.
The California jury’s decision came a day after three Korean judges handed down a mixed decision in a similar case, saying both companies had violated some patents and ordering several products – mostly older ones that barely figure in today’s market – off store shelves.
Now, I’m not a fan of Samsung. Like so many others in the technology world, it has has behaved in ethically questionable ways. And it quite plainly did mimic much of the functionality of the iPhone – though it was Apple’s longtime CEO, Steve Jobs, who famously quoted Picasso’s adage that good artists copy and great artists steal.
But in recent years, I have become even less a fan of Apple. It is now the uber-bully of the technology industry, and is using its surging authority – and vast amounts of cash – in ways that are designed to lock down our future computing and communications in the newest frontier of smart phones and tablets.
In the end, Apple will settle for nothing less than outright capitulation by Samsung – and, by extension, other Android device makers – in what Jobs called a “thermonuclear war”, which he planned, before his death, to wage on Android. If Apple is successful, either all Android manufacturers will pay Apple a license fee, or Apple will simply make it too expensive, via lawsuits, for other phone makers to compete. And if that happens, Apple’s financial dominance in smart phones (Android leads in overall numbers of units sold) and overwhelming dominance in the tablet market could be insurmountable. Users of technology should worry about that scenario, for many reasons.
Even more than Microsoft during that company’s most ruthless days in the 1990s, Apple wants control over how we use technology. It locks down the iOS, requiring that apps be offered or sold only though its own portal, and limits competition when a developer is doing anything that might have an impact on its own business. And as Apple expands into living rooms – a TV is widely believed to be on the horizon – and beyond, we have to ask: do we want a single company with such influence?
It’s only fair to note that Apple fans are ecstatic at the prospect. They are eager to live in the embrace of their favorite company, and believe they get a safer and smoother experience by doing so. But those of us who believe we should be able to use what we buy the way we want to use it are less enthralled. We don’t want Apple, or any other company, dictating – in fundamental ways – how we compute and communicate. Yet, that is precisely where we may be heading.
And what of the patent process that has given Apple such leverage?
Richard Posner, a well-respected federal judge in another Apple-versus-Android case (this one, which he threw out of court, involved Google’s Motorola unit), has famously called said there are “serious problems” with the current patent system, warranting an overhaul. We’re stuck with what we have for the moment, however.
And if Apple can abuse that off-the-rails system to thwart innovation and the iterative process that sees all tech companies build on the successes of the past, the most valuable company in the world will have more power than what it has richly earned through smart business practices.
The cases in Seoul, San Jose and around the world are about everyone’s future. For people who believe in competition in technology, and freedom in how we use it, Friday’s events were bleak, indeed.