Monday, August 27, 2012

Why the Apple verdict against Samsung is bad for you

Last week Apple won a lawsuit against Samsung and was awarded over $1 billion in damages. Obviously this is bad for Samsung, but I would argue that it is also bad for all of us, the consumers.

The patents that Samsung was found infringing on were either extremely obvious (Bounce back when scrolling for instance) or just weird (Design patent on a rectangle with rounded edges). It gets even worse when you hear the jurors talk about how they came to the verdict and it is obvious that they have no idea of what they were doing (Which is understandable given that this stuff is very complicated). For instance they decided to skip the discussion about prior art on the patents because "It was bogging us down". Groklaw also has a good rundown on some of the inconsistencies in the jury's verdict.

What will probably happen now is that Android phones will have to jump through a bunch of hoops trying to work around Apple's patents instead of concentrating on adding new awesome features even if Google themselves are trying to down play the significance of the verdict. Also Google has already started to leverage its newly acquired patent portfolio from its acquisition of Motorola so we will see more of this nonsense from all sides. And none of this will get us any better phones because technology is not improved by lawyers, it is improved by engineers.

I would contend that the reason why we have such awesome phones these days is not thanks to either Apple, Samsung or Google. It is thanks to all of them and the fact that they are all trying to put out the absolute best products they can so that they are better than the competition. As Steve Jobs himself was fond of saying "Good artists copy, great artists steal" (In fact even the quote itself is stolen from Pablo Picaso). The copying also goes both ways, tell me the new notifications in iOS wasn't inspired by Android's implementation.

Research and innovation has always been a matter of standing on the shoulders of giants. And most importantly as has happened over and over in the history of science, what happens is that once the body of knowledge gets to a certain point the next step becomes obvious and once anybody thinks about it the next step is usually not that hard and so should not be patentable. I am not saying that there aren't ground breaking leaps of new knowledge that is thought of (Theory of relativity and quantum mechanics stand out), but they are exceedingly rare and for instance inventing a square with rounded corners is not it (In fact if the jury had considered prior art they would have seen that Samsung had prototypes looking like that before the iPhone was released).

Gizmodo does have a different take on this where they are hoping that this will mean the end of the mere copying and the beginning of true innovation. I wish they are right, but I highly doubt it. Also, as they point out, there are quite a lot of innovation already happening in the mobile space. I don't think this will change that either way except that more resources will now be devoted expressly trying to not be similar to the competition instead of trying to make the best possible product.

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