Okay, I'll admit that when I turned on my brand new Google Android Nexus phone yesterday morning, I was pleasantly surprised to see the now-familiar sliding "unlock" screen icon sported on the Apple iPhone. It's a clever way to prevent accidental dialing and even to keep my kid from screwing something up in there if she ever gets a hold of it.
But I didn't expect Apple to go suing the Taiwanese handset manufacturer HTC over the lifting of this now-standard unlocking routine, and about a dozen other iPhone innovations Steve Jobs claims to have patented. “We can sit by and watch competitors steal our patented inventions, or we can do something about it. We’ve decided to do something about it,” the Apple CEO said in a press release on Apple's blog. “We think competition is healthy, but competitors should create their own original technology, not steal ours.”
It’s as if Apple is picking off the least able of the herd to mount a defense in a much larger campaign against Google.
Still, in an increasingly crowded smart-phone industry, it's hard to tell if Apple's claims are more about protecting innovation, or merely protecting market share. In fact, these two aims may even be at odds.
From the looks of it, Apple is still in a state of mild euphoria from having won its countersuit against handset giant Nokia, which sued Apple for infringements on its patents on wireless transmission and security. Apple demonstrated that Nokia borrowed a whole lot more from Apple's iPhone than Apple did from Nokia's—and while the case is still being challenged and counter-challenged, its possible ramifications have had a chilling, hostile effect on the whole industry.
When one of these companies wins a suit, they demand that the U.S. International Trade Commission ban the importation of the loser's products until the offending code or features are removed. Plus, in many cases, the loser also has to remove the offending code from existing devices. So the next time you upgrade your software (or it is upgraded for you from central command) the thing you bought your phone for is gone.
It appears Apple has learned a lot from its brinksmanship with Nokia. We know what Nokia was fighting for: a cellphone market that is leaving its products in droves and adopting the iPhone, instead. And Apple's countersuit at the time was fair game—a defensive jujitsu that matched Nokia's aggression without necessarily adding to the hostility on the playing field.
Apple going after HTC has a different flavor. HTC is actually among the smaller players in the pack competing to bring an alternative smart phone to market—especially compared to Google and Microsoft, whose operating systems it employs. It's as if Apple is picking off the least able of the herd to mount a defense in a much larger campaign against Google itself, which will either be named a defendant if the case continues, or become the de facto loser-by-proxy.
But even if things never get that far, if Apple can make prospective Android phone buyers think twice about the longevity the phone's features and legality, it could slow what has become a meteoric rise for this iPhone alternative.
Do the infringement claims make sense? Some of them probably do, at least in a technical sense. Apple is focusing largely on the code behind its touch-screen, as well as some programming that dates back to Steve Jobs' Next operating system. Other patents are as simple as using icons in a phone OS. In other words, Apple is throwing the book at them to see what sticks.
While we can't fault Apple for trying to protect the intellectual property in which it invested, it's a strange position for this company to be in. On the one hand, a lot Apple's own smart-phone technology was arguably lifted from Palm. They clearly improved on Palm's innovations, which is why they are now the industry leader.
Meanwhile, the very premise of Apple Computers was to do things differently. Like their users, Apple thought different—offering alternative and, in many cases, superior ways to compute, entertain, and communicate.
Apple is finally in a position to set the standards by which these technologies operate—to define our relationships to our devices in a way few companies have ever managed. They're in the position of a GM in the 1950s, choosing how drivers will be getting to turn on their high beams or wipers, or AT&T developing the rotary-dial phone—and establishing the very gestures through which humans and their technologies interface.
In fact, if Apple really means to keep others from copying what works about its iPhones, it could end up marginalizing its long-term influence over technology by enforcing its short-term share of the market.
In the end, we'll be able to better understand Apple's deeper motivations if and when they start to win their cases. Most patent-infringement suits are too expensive and lengthy to ever reach court, and are settled with money or licensing. But if Apple fights a more scorched-earth battle, insisting on HTC's phones being stripped of their operating systems altogether, we'll know Apple is more concerned with remaining different than being emulated.
Douglas Rushkoff, a professor of media studies at The New School University and producer and correspondent for the PBS Frontline Digital Nation project, is the author of numerous books, including Cyberia, ScreenAgers, Media Virus, and, most recently, Life Inc., by Random House.