For a patent case that dragged on for more than a year, starting with the Apple suit against Samsung in a San Jose, Calif. District Court in April 2011, the verdict came out surprisingly quick: the nine member jury took just around three days of deliberations to decide on over 700 questions on various technical matters. While the unanimous verdict and a 1 billion dollar payout seemingly indicate that Apple has come out the clear winner in this round, the war is still raging on a global scale between the two major players in the Smartphone market, from South Korea to Australia to the EU.
While unveiling the first iPhone in 2007, the late Steve Jobs had quipped, "boy, have we patented it." Renowned for their innovations in technology and design aesthetics, Apple has been aggressively making their name in another field as well: that of patent litigation. They have sued nearly every major Smartphone manufacturer, and have been sued in turn by every one of them, all over the world. The courts are getting clogged with patent infringement related cases as the competition in the lucrative market gets more and more intense.
On a cursory glance, Apple's ire seems to be directed mainly against Samsung, HTC and Motorola. But in the larger scheme of things, Google is clearly in the crosshairs of the Cupertino based company. From the day of its inception, Google's Android OS has drawn the wrath of Steve Jobs, who accused Google of having "ripped off the iPhone." He is famously known to have vowed to spend every "penny of Apple's $40 billion" to right the wrong.
In a sensitive market where Android rules the roost as the primary OS of choice for over 67% of all Smartphones produced, Apple is the only contender who can mount a credible threat to Google's dreams of doing a Microsoft in the mobile world. As arguably the most valuable company ever, with a dedicated fan-base, a market share of close to 20%, and the most popular product out there, Apple has been actively engaged in what can be called a proxy war with Google, via litigation against phone manufacturers that use the Android OS.
To be sure, the recent cases against Samsung involved allegations of copying of iPhone's and iPad's hardware as well as software design elements. While any allegations of copying hardware design elements would fall squarely at the feet of Samsung, the software aspect is in the hands of Google, who licenses their OS out to the manufacturers. Hence, the recent verdict affirming Apple's allegations of copyright infringement on several patents by Samsung also hits Google by proxy.
Meanwhile, Google is not sitting by idly. Their acquisition of a bevy of patents previously held by Motorola Corp. will surely go a long way in shoring up their defenses in what is sure to be a long drawn out and protracted conflict. The ongoing case between Apple and Google owned Motorola Mobility acquires greater significance in the light of recent developments, with Apple being on the defensive against allegations of copyright infringement of seven patents by Motorola.
The US case verdict could have tangible effect on the different cases pending in courts all over the world. Apple has much to celebrate from the way things have turned out for them. They will be emboldened to pursue their policy of active litigation against major competitors everywhere. Such a ruthless 'winner take all' policy does not bode well for the industry in general and consumers in particular, especially if Apple is able to replicate this success elsewhere. Such a strategy would end up becoming an industry norm, with every company attempting to land patents and indulge in widespread patent litigation.
While the world watches in rapt attention, not everyone is enamored by these developments. The rise in patent litigation has alarmed many industry analysts. There have been instances of patent cases being thrown out of court by judges who advise the litigants to sit down and iron their differences out. And in a world where Apple alone is involved in over 50 patent infringement cases in more than a dozen different countries, things can often become too convoluted and complicated for even seasoned observers of the industry to make any sense of. Industry watchers in the US have been calling for reforms in the legislation regarding patents. There is a perception gaining credence that too many patents are being granted by the Government, leading increased patent litigation in the courts.
Increasing litigation in the industry doesn't bode well for the consumers. In the light of the recent verdict, if it stands the inevitable round of appeals to follow, Samsung and other manufacturers of Android based Smartphone will have to revamp their product line-up or face further litigation from Apple. This could lead to reduced choice for customers in the near future. Will it encourage or discourage innovation within the industry? Well, it can be argued either way. But one possible impact could be the effect on prices of products, which could end up going upwards.
While Apple and Google battle it out for supremacy, one company that has great potential to benefit from the conflict is Microsoft. In the event of further reverses suffered by Google and Android, Smartphone manufacturers might be forced to look elsewhere for an alternative OS. And the new Windows Phone offers a relatively safer alternative vis-à-vis Android. Microsoft's OS has less in common with the iOS than Android does. Though it still remains to be seen whether Windows Phone will be competitive against the more entrenched rival from Apple's stables, the present situation offers a great opportunity for Microsoft to gain a foothold in a platform where it hasn't ventured too far.
As a footnote, in contrast to the US court verdict, a recent decision by a South Korean court in a similar case between the same players offers a shocking, yet somewhat amusing alternative. The court banned products from both manufacturers. Products by both manufacturers which were involved in the case in South Korea were banned from the market there. Maybe the Koreans have hit on the ideal though ultimately impracticable solution to dissuade Smartphone companies from indulging in indiscriminate litigation!
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