Apple was the ostensible victor in today's preliminary patent ruling against Samsung in the Netherlands and way too many media stories are playing it that way. But a closer look reveals that Apple's anti-competitive patent play may be falling flat. The judge rejected the vast bulk of Apple's claims and Samsung has an easy fix for the one remaining violation.
The ruling noted that most of Apple's supposed patents would be undercut by an array of prior products. For example, a patent on swiping to unlock a smartphone was granted after the Neonode N1m, released in 2005, used a similar feature. And the laughable community design patent on the iPad (the one where Apple offered phony photos to help makes it case), was rejected on the basis of prior art, like a Compaq tablet from 2003, as well as the obvious design differences between the iPad and the Tab.
Apple won only against three of Samsung's smart phones -- not the Galaxy Tab -- and only on its sort of silly photo scrolling patent. Samsung has said it is changing its custom photo gallery app to eliminate the violation (for bouncing the list of photos when the user gets the bottom). And despite what Florian Mueller may think, that's not a standard feature of Android. On my Nexus S, lists don't bounce when you hit bottom, they glow orange.
Given today's decision and last week's move by a German court to scale back its ruling against Samsung's Galaxy Tab, it may be that the patent wars will blow over more quickly than expected as the courts impose a dose of rationality. And let's be very clear -- that would be the best outcome for all consumers. Copying features is part of what happens in healthy markets. It drives competition and innovation forward. It forces manufacturers to continually improve their products to stay ahead. There is a reason that the U.S. Department of Justice forced the companies that bought Novell's old IP portfolio (Apple, Oracle, Microsoft and EMC) to subject the patents to open source licensing.
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