Rounded Rectangles

I tried to write a post about this a couple days ago, but found that it wound up just being a pretty butthurt anti-Apple piece. I’m going to try again and target the crux of the matter, and that is US Patent Law.

There is a lot to this case, a lot that I’ve read about and a lot that I have not. Patent lawsuits happen a lot, especially among technology companies. The more ridiculous ones are the ones where companies hoard patents on ideas and don’t put anything on the market for them, but sue companies who try to get those idea on the market. The troublesome thing about Apple is that they claimed patents on concepts that are common to everything. A rounded rectangle phone? Does that mean I can patent a circle shaped phone? A hexagon? It’s a shape, something encountered in everyday life. Or how about square icons in rows of four, why is this a concern? Companies spend a lot of money in courts defending things like this because they honestly believe consumers can be “confused” and not buy their product because of a competitors similar product. I think most consumers are smart enough to know that they’re buying an iPhone, or a Samsung, or an HTC, and so on. They’re distinctive brands, and even if they have similar functions or features, people are smart enough to see the differences and choose for themselves.

However you feel about Apple, or Samsung, the jury, or the case, the real topic here, which has companies worried, is patent law. It’s broken and in favor of companies seeking to use patents as a way of cornering their markets and squeezing money out of their competition. What bothers me about Apple’s position here is it is not unlike Microsoft’s position in the 1990’s, as they were being put to the grill for trying to force out other companies with competing browsers. Only instead of browsers we’re dealing with phones and software. There are other differences, for Microsoft then, they were bundling Internet Explorer with their operating system, which many consumers simply used because it was there and didn’t think to try anything else. After the monopoly lawsuits and Janet Reno, Mozilla and Google took up positions and used a combination of better browsers, smear campaigns, and better marketing to dissolve IE’s hold over the market. The result is you have a choice of what browser you use, even though IE is still integrated into Windows. With Apple, while they cannot force you to buy an iPhone or an iPad, the fact that you still have to contend with mostly Apple products or Apple-developed applications means you don’t have much choice or control over your device, compared to Android which has large potential for customization and choice. Most people will dismiss this as the standard Apple mantra, seeking a device that “just works” but would you interpret that desire as simply ignorance to smartphones and technology in general?

For me, Android was a better choice because I’m a tech enthusiast, I hack and customize my phones to do what I want, when I want. I don’t like being bound by the limitations of a single company. As a software developer however, having a single platform, with the same hardware and same software, makes it easier for me to develop applications and features, because I don’t have to worry about too much deviation. Developing for Android however is a little more cumbersome, because while the OS is the same, the hardware is very different across all phone makers. It’s for this reason however that Apple cannot reliably fall back on patents to their devices, their functionality cannot be the same on other devices. Each phone maker may use a 4-across square-icon app drawer, but they may sort them different, display the icons in a different manner, have a different dock, but above all, the user can opt to use a completely different launcher application. In fact, when you consider that the different Samsung applications that run on their phones are already custom, Android’s base launcher is different. How can they kill an entire phone or device?

Patent law today rewards companies and individuals for marketing strategies and common-sense designs rather than real innovations or ideas. Thanks to Disney, it’s been extended beyond two or three natural lifetimes to the point where no one else can improve upon them or benefit from them. This wasn’t the original purpose of patents, nor should it be allowed to continue. We spend more money on lawyers, litigation, and courts, defending ideas than we do innovating anything, or inspiring the next generation of people to aspire to invent. We’re making lawyers rich off the backs of people with great ideas, and what, so Apple can enjoy its narrow dominance over the cell phone market? They were the king once, and then they were dethroned.

Apple fans will say that five iPhones later, it’s changed and evolved from day one, but when I look at it, I look at a device that has hardly changed over the years and software that has only changed so much as new apps were developed and core features improved. It still makes calls, and still browses Facebook. Android by itself is similar, it too has not changed much beyond updates and new features, but companies like Samsung, HTC, Motorola, and more, have designed phones and applications for Android that have done new and exciting things, things that have gone beyond Apple’s narrow-minded scope over the past few years, and that is why their market share has eroded. Companies that either stall in development or fall to competitors, always take the dirty way out, they flash their patents and demand money to float until their “next big break” like a bailout or your sibling’s drug habit.

I’m not sure how this case will end, if it ever ends, but I’m for Samsung prevailing, not because I want Apple to lose (I do) but because I want patent corruption to lose. I want enough people to realize that if we do not reform patent law, it will continue to contribute to the stagnant innovation in this country and allow us to be overtaken by countries like China, who don’t give two fucks about patent law and rip-off everything and anything for a profit.

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