Prompted by the peaceful demonstrations of athleticism in London taking place, I thought the topic of competition would parallel well, especially in light of the recent developments in tech. In an industry guided by Moore’s Law, competition is the lifeblood of any tech company. With secrets guarded so closely that merely posting a picture of a “misplaced” phone lands some poor sap in hot water with not only his employer but also creating a situation where the police raid and confiscate hard drives of a journalist, it’s no wonder that competition is vital to progress. Ideally, consumers are the ultimate beneficiaries of competition. In recent years, however, several impediments have caused the industry to forego the consumer in favor of their own bottom-line.
“Competition brings out the best in products and the worst in people.”
David Sarnoff, founder of RCA
Nilay Patel, Managing Editor at The Verge, wrote a magnificent article about wireless carriers dictating innovation that’s worth a read here. To sum up his thoughts: essentially mobile carriers are squeezing consumers to fatten their profits (‘Water is wet, more at 11, back to you with the weather, Dave’). Instead of phone manufacturers creating great phones, they are forced to create products that carriers want– or their phones aren’t sold to the public. The late Steve Jobs himself had to personally convince AT&T to carry the iPhone. Now, after the resounding success of the iPhone, Apple has the ability to make the phone that they want to make. Recently, Samsung achieved the same status by creating one design of their Galaxy S III phone (it still has different regional internals). Hopefully the tide is turning here in favor of phone manufacturers, but the carriers still have the final say in what is sold.
- —Verizon refused shipment on millions of WebOS devices which led to the downfall of Palm.
- —HTC’s One X was redesigned for Sprint into the EVO 4G LTE.
- —Apple had the Galaxy Nexus banned in the US.
- —Verizon blocked the use of Google Wallet in favor of their own mobile payment solution (you can easily find a workaround via XDA if you look hard enough).
Perhaps this fundamentally comes down to Steve Jobs, or at least it seems he popularized it. Patent trolls are nothing new, but Steve was personally hurt by what he interpreted as a betrayal by Eric Schmidt in terms of Google “copying” iOS in parts of Android. Even back when Apple first shipped the Macintosh, Steve was adamant about not licensing the software to sell without the Apple hardware. Recently, however it seems it’s easier to find a company that Apple hasn’t dragged kicking and screaming into a courtroom over some perceived imitation. It seems patents were the primary driver behind Google’s purchase of Motorola– to the tune of $12.5 billion. Google’s strategy here is to purchase Motorola, a treasure trove of patents, and then sign them over to its hardware partners, such as HTC.
To borrow from Game of Thrones, if you can’t protect your banner men, how can you expect them to protect you? Defending your turf is one thing, but if the legal system *requires* you to sue everyone over such trivialities as slide to unlock, then there is a bigger problem at stake.
And that problem is the patent system. Specifically in regards to software patents. To condense some of the legal intricacies, the act of creating anything, really, software-wise these days virtually guarantees that you are infringing on some patent. It’s the defendant’s burden to prove that a patent troll’s patent is invalid. See Lodsys, infamous patent troll who demanded selected iOS developers to turn over a portion of their revenues for an in-app purchasing system. Basically it boils down to the idea that you can patent software, which is essentially “just math.” However, you cannot patent an “abstract idea, a law of nature, or a natural phenomenon,” which subsumes math.
“Ask any engineer or any lawyer in the tech space whether it’s possible to make any software product today without violating someone’s patents, and they’ll say no. It’s no longer possible, and in fact, it’s so complex and stupid now in the US patent law space, it’s not even possible to know in advance if you are doing so.”
Nilay wraps up his article by citing the first head of the Patent Office, Thomas Jefferson, when he initially called patents “embarrassments to the public,” and went on to say that the “abuse of frivolous patents is likely to cause more inconvenience than is countervail by those really useful.” While he later recognized the value of patents, I think the salient point is that he could foresee the abuse of the system. It’s been a few years since President Jefferson has held office, but if he could presciently see the potential for abuse, perhaps this is a problem that’s endemic of the entire system, or lack thereof.
To echo Nilay, I am by no means a patent lawyer, or even a legal expert. Unfortunately, there’s no one right answer or fix to this problem, and in all likelihood, this sort of behavior has probably been witnessed in business for decades, but is now more easily publicized. At any rate, in order to progress, companies such as Google need to be able to compete instead of being strangled by the patent system.
Thumbnail image created from Wikipedia