I'm boycotting Apple

Patent bullying and ongoing competition by litigation and intimidation are reasons why. For me the last straw came earlier this week when Apple sought to ban importation of Samsung Galaxy S III (the request for preliminary injunction is before a judge and a ruling could come as early as next week). The phone launched in 28 countries on May 29 and goes on sale from five US carriers within the next 30 days. Many tech reviewers and pundits have called Galaxy S III an iPhone 4S killer. Apple doesn't have a competitive product in market so instead seeks to block Samsung's -- all under the guise of protecting innovations.

Apple is an amazing marketer that manages perceptions very well. One of these regards innovation and the idea that other companies imitate Apple, often badly, and its trendy ideas must be protected. Perception is one thing. Reality is another. Apple isn't as innovative as its corporate "reality distortion field" would have everyone believe. But the company has gotten quite good at something: Unleashing a torrent of suits to secure patents and to defend them -- and many cover processes that should never have been awarded patents in the first place. Apple has gotten quite good at gaming the patent system. I want no part of it.

Apple the Assembly Imitator

"Apple is itself a consummate imitator", Oded Shenkar writes in book Copycats: How Smart Companies use Imitation to Gain a Strategic Edge, which I'm reading now and highly recommend. You'll think differently about American concepts of innovation and imitation if you read it, too, and regard Apple quite differently if open-minded enough. Not that I had much conviction about Apple being an innovator before. The company clearly innovates imitations.

Shenkar states it differently. "More than anything, Apple is master of assembly imitation: it follows in the paths of many predecessors, which have existing technologies and materials to generate new technologies by recombining them". He calls companies like Apple that innovate from imitation "imovators".

There's nothing wrong with that. It's actually how the patent system fosters imitation, by allowing and even encouraging derivative works. Before the US Congress mucked with patents -- and copyrights, too -- during my lifetime, reach was limited. Governments grant patents with the understanding that they are limited monopolies. Company X profits for Y time period. Meanwhile the patent is publicly published, allowing imitators to change and innovate from the original invention.

Apple's lawsuits seek to undermine this process, by using patents as clubs to beat back imitators, all while imitating others. Did Apple invent the MP3 player, the media player application, the smartphone, the app store, the tablet or any of its other successful products available today? Regarding iPod, iTunes, iPhone, App Store, iPad and others the answers are no, no, no, no, no and no. Apple executives know this.

In 1990s interview Apple cofounder Steve Jobs remarked: "Picasso had a saying, he said: 'Good artists copy, great artists steal'. We have, you know, always, ah, been shameless about stealing great ideas".

The Way Things Are

Why not? "Imitation is a fundamental part of biological and social life", Shenkar writes, and he most certainly is right. Just gawk at the activity on Facebook, Google+, Tumblr or Twitter and you'll see imitation everywhere and people looking to fit in, to be part of the social group, through imitation. He goes on to show how imitation is biological, whether among human beings or anywhere else in the world. Imitation is part of our DNA. But Apple, and its cultish supporters, would have everyone believe that innovation is in the company's DNA.

Horse manure. The lead photo to this post is good example. I grabbed it from Google+, where I saw it yesterday (it comes from KuvatON.com). So Apple gets a patent for slide to lock. But did it invent the process?

That's the problem with many of the patents Apple now wields as weapons of mass competitor destruction: They cover common processes observed in human or natural worlds. It's one thing to develop the transistor or microprocessor -- true inventions -- and another to club Samsung with "unified search" (US Patent No. 8,086,604), and "link for structures" (US Patent No. 5,946,647).

I've used the kind of search described in the first patent for as long as I've used a computer (early 1990s). The other, regarding accessing computer data, is more problematic and goes back further (granted in 1999 versus 2011 for the other). But the patent specifically applies to "computer-generated data". Smartphones aren't computers as such, but they are the kind of derivative product the established patent system is supposed to foster -- and protect. Neither patent predates the smartphone, which Nokia invented in 1996.

The patent system is supposed to encourage innovation from imitation, what Apple does but doesn't want anyone else to do. That's why patents are published and public, to encourage derivative invention, all while the original inventor profits from its work. Why is that? Two reasons are obvious. The approach: 1) Serves the public interest, by making information available to all and 2) Encourages further invention and competition, which fosters fundamental concepts of capitalism and ensures its smooth operation. Capitalism fails when there is no competition, and Apple's patent trolling seeks to beat off competitors. Not protect innovations.

Competition by Litigation

A decade ago, when Apple wasn't anywhere as successful, other journalists and I covering Macs would occasionally ask one another: What if Apple was as big and powerful as Microsoft? Wouldn't we all be better off? I usually heard that question answered "Yes" -- that Apple would never be as aggressive or anticompetitive as Microsoft was during its PC supremacy in the late 1980s throughout the 1990s. I always answered "No". But now, Apple's aggressiveness -- whether patents or beating up its own developers -- is much worse than I ever envisioned.

Apple is far more aggressive than Microsoft, as seen by its legal assault on Samsung and HTC. Apple doesn't sue just any company. Its patent litigation focuses squarely on competitors. Microsoft succeeded in part by outflanking competitors, particularly around formats, platform changes and smart partnering. Apple seeks legal redress.

The smartphone market is rapidly consolidating around Apple and Samsung; the South Korean electronics giant accounted for 40 percent of Android sales during first quarter, according to Gartner. Apple vs Samsung should be about competition not litigation. Same can be said of Apple against HTC and the recent success temporarily barring One X importation into the United States.

I no longer will personally support a company that treats imitation as a one-way street and bullies competitors through litigation. The attitude: It's okay for Apple to imitate others but not for competitors to do likewise. The patent bullying is unbecoming of a company which reputation is one that succeeds by invention.

Over the last couple months, with my wife's cooperation, we've sold: iPhone 4S (2011), 13-inch MacBook Pro (2009), 11.6-inch MacBook Air (2011) and new iPad (2012). I took a loss on the new iPad and MacBook Air, for the amount of time they were used. I still have an Apple AirPort router, which is gone as soon as I get a replacement. We have other reporters here using Apple products enough to ensure adequate coverage of the company's tech. My daughter still has an aluminum 13.3-inch MacBook (2008), iPad 2 (2011) and iPhone 4S (2011). I wouldn't ask her to give them up. My choice shouldn't be hers, or anyone else's.

Choice is the point. Apple's patent litigation seeks to limit choice in the market place, by eliminating competing products rather than meeting them head on. Sadly, the broken US patent system contributes to Apple's competition-by-litigation success.

I close by asking this: If Apple products are so innovative, why doesn't Apple compete rather than litigate?

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