Why Apple needs to lose the Samsung appeal

Vivek Wadhwa
Contributor, Innovations August 30, 2012

I have to admit, I’m a huge Apple fan. I’ve bought practically every Apple device ever made. I am usually one of those in line the first day Apple releases a new product, and I own Apple stock.

That said, I hope that Apple loses if Samsung appeals — as they are expected to do.

Vivek Wadhwa is a fellow at Rock Center for Corporate Governance at Stanford University, director of research at Center for Entrepreneurship and Research Commercialization at Duke, and distinguished fellow at Singularity University. His past appointments include Harvard Law School, University of California Berkeley, and Emory University. View Archive

Here’s why: I am worried about the future of innovation—not only in Silicon Valley, but also at Apple. Another Apple victory will escalate the patent wars and cause more innovative startups to get trampled while tech-industry titans battle each other. Another patent victory could also cause Apple to become complacent – just as Microsoft was at the height of its Windows monopoly. Innovation requires a thriving ecosystem – one in which companies build on each other’s ideas and where they are forced to continually reinvent themselves.

I have previously written about how patents have become a destructive force in the technology sector. Fledgling startups have to constantly worry about big companies such as Apple or Samsung—or worst of all—a patent troll, bankrupting them with a frivolous lawsuit. Research has shown between 1990 and 2010, patent lawsuits have caused a loss of half-a-trillion dollars in wealth and forced U.S. companies to divert substantial resources from production to litigation support.

The only way to protect ideas in the tech industry is to move fast and keep innovating. If you stagnate, others duplicate your ideas and put you out of business. That is why Apple is the most valuable company in the world—it keeps innovating. That’s because it has to. It can’t rest on its laurels like Microsoft did. Unlike the personal computer , mobile is evolving rapidly, and, as a result, companies can’t stagnate.

Industry observers are already speculating about how the Apple victory is going to cause companies such as Nokia, RIM and Microsoft, which are laggards in the mobile technology race, and even Apple itself, to file more lawsuits. These companies have hoards of patents. Why innovate when you can more cheaply litigate?

Some are saying, however, that the ruling will have a positive effect because Apple’s competitors will be forced to innovate, creating new designs. That may be true, but with the tens of thousands of patents out there, technology companies can’t be sure how these relate to their inventions. These patents are very technical and most people can make neither heads nor tails of what they cover. The innovator could get caught in a frivolous lawsuit by a patent troll trying to extort money or a big player wanting to slow down their potential competition. If expert technologists can’t figure out what these patents cover, how can juries?

Consider how Apple won. It won on minor technicalities such as the ability to enlarge an image or text by tapping a screen, a “bounce back” feature when scrolling beyond the edge of a page, the effect of single-touch and multi-touch gestures such as“pinch-to-zoom”, the shape of the iPhone, and the rounded square icons on its interface. These are hardly breakthroughs in technology that are worthy of protection. Some of Apple’s patents are incredibly arcane even to technology experts.

Apple became successful because it didn’t hesitate to cannibalize its own technologies. It didn’t worry that the iPad would hurt the sales of its laptops, or that its laptops would cause its desktop products to become obsolete, or that the music player in the iPhone would eliminate the need to buy an iPod. The company moved foward quickly while competitors copied its designs. If you squint, you’ll notice a number of similarities between the Windows 3 user interface, for example, and that of the Macintosh.

Let’s not forget that Apple also got its start by building on technology developed by others. The graphical user interface and mouse that the Macintosh popularized and the tablet computer were in different stages of development at institutions such as Stanford Research Institute and Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC). Steve Jobs built on these innovations. If he was embroiled in lawsuits or had to pay hefty fees to patent trolls, the Macintosh computer, iPhone, iPad, and iPod would very likely not have existed.

So let’s have Samsung and everyone else copy the iPhone and iPad, while Apple wows us with a new generation of technologies that are so far ahead that the competitors look out of date. I’ll eagerly line up at the Apple Store to purchase its next big innovation—whatever it might be.

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