One of the greatest sucker plays Apple fans have been falling for lately is defending Apple's anticompetitive patent and copyright litigation. Apple's success has been built on the innovations of others, starting with the Xerox PARC lab. As Joe Wilcox pointed out today, even Steve Jobs has bragged about this legacy of "stealing great ideas." And it's not just Apple. Historically, that is how an awful lot of great stuff comes about. Thus today's mantra:
What's good for Apple's legal department isn't good for you.
There were flip phones before the Motorola StarTAC but they weren't so cool. There were e-ink readers before the Kindle but they stunk. There were MP3 music players before the iPod but they were severely lacking. There were super-expensive little video cameras before the Flip. Apple didn't invent the touchpad, or back-lit keyboards or solid-state drives but they brought you the Macbook Air.
Imagine if one of these horrendously vague patents had been granted for putting an SSD in a laptop or the rectangular shape of an MP3 music player with rounded corners and a rectangular screen.¹ Consumers would be much worse off, stuck with flawed products produced by the "innovator" but unable to buy truly great products from companies that put things together in a better way. It's the pressure to improve in the marketplace that creates innovation.
So here's the thing -- these Apple lawsuits quashing competition on the basis of horrendous patents (the German case against Samsung is for a "design" of a thin, rectangular tablet computer with rounded corners) are not helping Apple customers one bit. Just because Apple has the legal right to sue competitors doesn't mean that's good for customers. It's terrible for customers.
Remember, intellectual property rights impinge on the free market and grant exclusive monopolies. They are supposed to be limited. They are supposed to prompt innovation, not quash it. They are, in the words of the Constitution, supposed to "promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts," something that seems nigh impossible when 250,000 patents have already been granted applying to smartphone design. There can be no doubt that the patent system is severely broken and Apple's arbitraging the flaws as much as possible.
When competition falters, for any reason, consumers lose out. Just the other day, we heard that Apple is in no rush to release the iPad 3 because there is so little competition from tablet competitors. You could be buying an even greater iPad for Christmas, or perhaps paying a lower price, if Android tablet makers had gotten their act together. But it's no go until at least 2012.
Still, the Apple defenders pop up to justify these garbage lawsuits. Wilcox's piece got this nasty non-rebuttal from The Loop's Jim Dalrymple:
I do know that none of the companies that have come out with similar products to the iPhone and iPad have added anything significant to the design. These companies radically changed their designs after the iPhone was released to make their products look just like Apple’s products. There are only two reasons to do that — capitalize on Apple’s success and confuse consumers.
The reason I'm offering Dalrymple as the Apple Village idiot is his contention that no one has added anything "significant" to smartphones since Apple introduced the iPhone. It's beyond idiotic. Apple was not the first with 3G broadband or a GPS receiver. It wasn't first with a front-facing camera, copy-and-paste, multitasking or HD video recording. And iOS 5 copies Android's notification and voice command features, among others. It's also not the first time Dalrymple has gone off the rails like this.
All that said, I AM NOT saying the iPhone isn't the best phone with GPS or the best phone with 3G. It just wasn't first. And if some of these vague, crummy patents had been issued on those features (who knows - maybe we'll find out soon they're sitting in Motorola's stash that Google just bought), consumers would have been denied the greatest smartphone ever made.
And, finally, I think Apple defenders and fans should think long and hard about the impact of these kind of tactics inside Apple. Apple fought a long and bruising battle over the look and feel of the Mac OS against Microsoft. In the light of history, the strategy is seen as a major distraction that got the company off track.
(Comments are heavily moderated. Keep it cool.)
¹ Years after the iPod was already successful, Creative sued Apple. The suit was settled with Apple paying $100 million.