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Ilya Kazi Headshot

Has Apple Lost its Cool?

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There can be few people in the western world who have not heard of the Apple superbrand and, of those that have, few who would argue against the company being a retail phenomenon.

Consumers on a global scale have been happy to queue through the night sleeping on concrete or shopping centre floors to be among the first to get their hands on the latest version of the iPad or iPhone.

Indeed it has just taken the top spot in the 2012 'CoolBrands' survey making it officially 'cooler' than any other brand in the UK. So, having hit the top, going forward is there anything could possibly dent the mighty Apple?

Well, it is enjoying a lofty and extremely profitable position and has gone on the offensive, 'tooled up' and ready to take on anyone who might want to encroach on its intellectual property (IP) patch.

Few people, let alone patent attorneys, would disagree that, with such a profitable business, it makes sense to give your technology and designs cast-iron protection to stop people copying them. However, traditionally in hi-tech fields there has been surprisingly little IP litigation. Companies have preferred to cross-licence their technologies - you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours - to avoid bloodshed, stay out of the media spotlight and work towards maximum mutual profit.

After its first bruising in 2009 when Nokia filed a lawsuit over Apple's infringement of ten of its patents followed by suing and counter-suing from both parties, it has sought to enforce its IP rights to the full to maintain its marketplace edge. Apple has since been at the heart of a series of IP lawsuits to protect patents and registered designs in both the US and Europe with companies including Samsung, Google, Microsoft, Nokia Motorola and HTC.

However, it seems that battle fatigue is starting to set in and the shine of the Apple Corporation is starting to wear off in consumers' eyes. Media publicity surrounding one of its latest actions, to protect a patent for 'a rectangle with rounded corners', appears to have visually shifted the needle of the 'cool' barometer with a small but noticeable backlash online.

Apple's protection conferred by US design patents was limited to "a portable display device", but media reports from journalists, who were either unaware of or excluded this fact, lead to suggestions that, overnight, producers of cheese could come under fire from Apple for infringing their design.

For every media report that doesn't necessarily give the viewer or reader the full picture, the public gets a skewed view of the proceedings and the super-cool becomes in danger of becoming rather uncool.

Each legal success turns into a media frenzy meaning that ever-more tech-savvy consumers are being fed a running commentary of every battle inside and outside the courtroom, but rather than looking like a market-leader protecting its incredibly valuable IP, Apple is running the risk of starting to look like a bully.

Stories in the press about lawsuits for 'old-hat' functions such as drop-down menus, one-finger scrolling, and pinch-zooming (patents which were registered years before and considered innovative at the time) are seeing the tide of popularity turn and leading to comments that it is simply a bridge too far and Apple should leave the rest of the market alone.

With billions of pounds at stake Apple isn't going to simply start backing off (and nor should they) but in any legal dispute you should consider all the options and ramifications before firing the first shot and that includes the possibility of bad PR.

Other businesses have also learned of the PR pitfalls of protecting their IP the hard way. Amazon, for example, sued Barnes & Noble in 1999 over its one-click-shop and found itself on the brunt of a boycott rallied by the Free Software Foundation. They have kept their cards closer to their chest and been less keen to file lawsuits ever since.

As the smartphone wars continue, Apple now needs to be aware that every legal victory that hits the headlines may end up a PR 'own goal'.

It isn't always necessary to air your legal laundry in public (especially if negotiating cross-licensing deals) and if Apple doesn't recognise the PR consequences of continuing to do so, it could start to affect the bottom line. Put simply, you can't appear to be a tyrant and 'cool' at the same time, and it may prove a costly lesson for Apple to learn.