While the jury is pondering over its verdict in the Apple Samsung trial, I can’t help but think that Apple has maneuvered itself into a Catch 22 situation with this legal battle. If they win, they lose. And if they lose, they also lose but maybe a little less. And in the end, it really comes down to the question for Cupertino: do you want to make history or just money? The answer to this one seems obvious, and Apple has done both, and not in small portions. And maybe the question would be more precise and less rhetorical like this: do you want to make history or just rule the business? Because these are truly incompatible as it turns out.
Apple is right in that, before Apple’s iPhone, there was no iPhone or anything that came close. And after the iPhone, within a dozen months, the world was full of iPhone lookalikes. In hindsight, it feels almost like there was a strange void in the universe which only the iPhone could fill like the last missing piece of a jigsaw puzzle. But that’s just because everyone got it immediately when it arrived and it felt so right. Steve Jobs announced in the first iPhone keynote that Apple just wanted to build a less crappy smartphone. But they did much more. Smartphones could only become such a mass phenomenon because Apple found (I avoid ‘invented’) the cultural techniques to interact with technology on the go. And like with other cultural techniques, like language, writing, printing, playing the guitar, there’s no point in licensing or IP protecting them because they’re public domain the moment they occur. Public domain in the sense that the public makes it its own. No point in the sense that, although it might be legally possible, at a certain time in a certain country, the public and therefore the competition just won’t give a damn. Once it’s got it, it’s not going to give it away again and it couldn’t even if forced by law.
Now Apple only has the choice of going down in history as the enabler of this big cultural achievement called mobile personal connectedness – or as the greedy company trying to stand in the way of getting it into everybody’s hand.
Update: After the verdict in favor of Apple, I’m reading an article titled “Samsung V. Apple And The Obviousness Standard” from patent attorney Leonid Kravets on TechCrunch. The argument is basically that the jury had no choice but vote for Apple because before the iPhone the touch interface and the language of gestures was anything but obvious. I tend to grant that although I’m not sure if the technology of the touch interface only allows (or allowed at the time of the iPhone 1) for a limited amount of discrete gestures. And there are actions like tapping or scrolling which are in my view indeed obvious; while other actions like double-tapping or tap-and-holding are arbitrary and dictated by the interface’s capability of registering discrete actions.
And then there are the 2-finger actions. In my view, these are the ones that are truly original and can be looked at as genuine Apple intellectual property. Because here, the design has really broken out of the mold by asking: what if…? But at the same time, they are also the ones that I personally feel most uncomfortable with. I rather double-tap to zoom in and out than use a second finger to pinch and I always struggle with rotating an object with 2 fingers on an iOS device.
Which brings me back to my original worry but now even stronger. Will Apple strangle the distribution of a new cultural technique with this lawsuit?, was my question before the verdict. After the verdict, my worry is that Apple might care even less about pushing further and evolving this cultural technique. Because, though much copied – as has now been officially proven in a US courtroom –, it is far from perfect.
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