Thursday, March 18, 2010

Apple vs HTC: The Empire Strikes Back

Okay. Let me make it perfectly clear; I'm not a fan of Apple. It's not really anything to do with their products, but the way they do business. They produce attractive, slick, intuitive devices. But they heavily control everything that the devices do, where they can download content from, use proprietary formats and lock the user out of options that would allow them to experience media not directly sold to them by Apple. On top of that, they charge a premium for their products (when it comes to comperable performance from competitors), and utilize an elitist ad campaign that focuses on bashing the competition instead of extolling the virtues of the product.

I have an intense dislike for companies like these. These "Nike"s of the digital age stress branding more than product quality or value, and rope users into a system by which they can continue to milk them for cash.

The one I least hate right now, is Google. They make money off of advertising, and while I would certainly prefer a world without ads, they're here to stay. Some people are concerned with their privacy on the internet, but frankly, if you're concerned about privacy, you shouldn't be on the internet. I've got nothing to hide, and if it means that the ads that pop up in front of me are for tech or IT products instead of creams for "feminine itch", I'm fine with that; and I won't be clicking on either regardless.

But back to the subject at hand, Apple suing HTC. They're doing it because they can strike at Google's Android without actually having to take on the search giant directly.

In the tech industry patents are broken every day. These aren't accidents. They are carefully calculated moves made with the assistance of patent lawyers that determine what the consequences of being sued for breaking the patent would be, and sales analysts decide how much the company stands to gain from breaking the patent and selling a more appealing product.

Sometimes the patent holder sees an opportunity when one of their patents are broken. They can now break the patent of the rival with fairly low risk of any recourse; nobody is going to sue someone for breaking their patent when they're already breaking one of theirs.

So if Apple isn't going after Google directly, is it because they have Google patent infringements? Probably not. Apple and Google were downright chummy a few months ago, until Google released the Nexus One with multi-touch. Apple had threatened to sue in the past if Google used multi-touch, so Google knew what it was getting into. But why didn't Apple sue Google like they'd said they would? Probably due to services Google provides for Apple, that Apple did not want to go without. Easier to sue HTC, the biggest Android smartphone manufacturer on the market currently.

HTC products were multi-touch compatible since the release of Android but Google native applications did not support multi-touch, allowing 3rd party apps only to use it. Over a year or so, it became obvious that they were reluctant to include multi-touch into their applications, giving rather laughable reasons such as stating that one finger was sufficient, and that multi-touch was awkward.

But demand for native application multi-touch came to a dull roar as Apple continued to run commercials of the iPhone pinching and zooming, swiping and rotating. Smartphone users are a finicky crowd; they want nothing but the best, and to be denied such a cool (and admittedly useful) feature as pinch-to-zoom made them furious.

Finally, with the release of the Nexus One, Google pulled out the stops. They released Android 2.1, which included multi-touch support in select applications such as Google Maps. Further support in a later revision of 2.1 included expanded multi-touch support, particularly notable in Google's browser.

So, the question begs asking, does Apple have a legal ground to sue HTC for patent infringement?

Well, HTC devices have had hardware multi-touch support for some time, but without Android native application support, blame could basically be dropped on the developers for making applications that used the hardware. Can they ultimately be held responsible for Google's decision to make that change? Is Apple too late in filing suit? Does HTC have a legal right to use multi-touch? Other phone manufacturers have their own multi-touch patents and, in many cases, appear also to be breaking Apple's patents on multi-touch as well.

Personally, I think that the blame lies with our patent system. That Apple could be granted a patent to such a widely general idea such as using 2 fingers on a touchscreen is ridiculous. To steal an analogy from a fellow I saw posting on another tech blog, it would be like a car manufacturer trying to patent the rights to the steering wheel, or cars with 4 wheels. For example, one of the patents Apple is leveling at HTC isn't multi-touch at all; it's for the phone's ability to make the CPU sleep to conserve power. Smartphones have a hard enough time running through a single day on one battery charge, not allowing the CPU to enter a suspended state and conserve power would be a death knoll to the rest of the smartphone industry, and is anti-competitive. There isn't much other option, short of strapping a huge battery or placing an unacceptably weak CPU into the smartphones.

A great article to read is here:

It describes what, essentially, the Nexus One would have to sacrifice to comply with Apple's patents. Not a phone that likely anyone would be terribly interested in purchasing.

It will be some years before the courts finally make a ruling in all this. HTC has expressed an intent to defend itself, and Google has stated it will be backing it's hardware friend. There won't likely be any secret back-room settlements this time. I can only hope that the US court system finds that Apple's patent claims are much too broad to be enforceable without virtually eliminating all competition in the smartphone industry.

I can also hope that it sheds some light on the real problems that exist within the US patent system.

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