I won’t boycott Apple

My colleague Joe Wilcox certainly created a storm when he declared his independence from Apple on July 4th. Annoyed by what he saw as the fruit company’s aggressive patent bullying, which he believes "thwarts competition and takes away consumer choice", he sold his remaining Apple devices, and now refuses to touch anything the company makes.

He’s not alone. The #boycottapple hashtag has gained a fair amount of traction on Google+, Reddit and Twitter and many, many words have been written on the subject. Read Joe’s articles if you need more background.

The boycotters are upset with Apple because, as Joe puts it, "the company's behavior butts against perceptions about its humanity". But that’s just naïve. Apple is a big, powerful company, and it won’t remain so if it doesn’t stand up for itself in every way, including going to court if necessary. I see nothing wrong with Apple taking its less cool rivals to task in order to prevent its inventions from being ripped off. As Apple CEO Tim Cook recently said, "I would highly prefer to settle than to battle. But it's important that Apple not become the developer for the world. We need people to invent their own stuff".

Necessary Evil

If Apple invents (or purchases) technology that it then patents, why shouldn’t it go to court to enforce those intellectual properties? If Samsung patented a concept and Apple used it, I would fully support Samsung’s right to sue.

The whole point of the patent system is to allow inventors and innovators to safeguard their ideas. If the patent office didn’t exist, if there was no such thing as patents (or copyright for that matter), we’d live in a wildly different world, with everyone freely copying from everyone else, but that doesn’t mean things would be better. If you had a fantastic idea, how would you feel if everyone used it, and made money from it? You’d probably be pretty annoyed, and unless you were particularly altruistic, less inclined to come up with ideas.

If the patent office didn’t exist, someone would have to create it. It’s very much a necessary evil -- albeit more for pharmaceutical companies who spend a fortune developing drugs than for software developers who can produce an idea at no cost -- but we all know it’s far from perfect. The current system in the United States has tech companies patenting nothing more solid than concepts, and then suing anyone who fails to respect those patents -- whether accidentally (because there are so many ridiculously broad or vague ones), or on purpose because they think they can get away with it.

Non-practicing entities (or patent trolls), have created something of a mockery of the system in recent times, extorting money for all sorts of ludicrous infringements that only exist on paper, and there’s a thriving market for buying and selling patents, too. Microsoft recently agreed to pay $1.06 billion to acquire more than 800 patents from AOL Inc. That’s $1.06 billion that could have gone towards research and development, but will instead be used (potentially) to defend Microsoft from other patent-wielding companies, or to launch its own patent litigation. That’s a shame and a crime, in my opinion.

Joe says Apple’s litigation strategy limits consumer choice, but some of that consumer choice only really exists because of Apple. Would Samsung or Google even have tablets if Apple hadn’t created a market for them in the first place? And as for it thwarting competition, why can’t an innovative tech company find good ways around the patent issues?

If the American Door Company owned patents for "opening doors with parts of your body", and sued anyone who so much as touched a door, it would hardly be its fault if everyone started clambering through windows instead of getting together to invent (and patent) a self-opening door.

One thing that really grates me is when boycotters refer to Apple’s litigation policy as "bullying". It’s not. A jock having a go at a nerd on the school bus is bullying. Apple suing Samsung is one giant money-making corporation having a pop at another giant money-making corporation, and neither of them care about us. By abandoning Apple products the boycotters aren’t helping Samsung, and they aren’t damaging Apple either. When one lion attacks another lion, neither is bothered what the flies around it are getting up to.

Samsung no Saint

Samsung is far from being a helpless victim. In fact, its approach to the impending trial has been pretty sneaky and aimed at creating as much confusion as possible. For the proposed jury verdict forms it came up with roughly 700 detailed questions, spanning over forty pages, for prospective jury members to scratch their heads over. Apple by contrast submitted only 49 questions set out across 6 pages. Patent pundit Florian Mueller notes that some of Samsung’s questions are designed to weed out Apple fanboys, anyone with a bias against Asian companies, and anyone who might have heard about the trial via a tech site (and who might, therefore, have a clue about any of the questions on the form). Interestingly, Apple’s opening queries want to know what jury members feel about the issue of copying and taking ideas from others.

Whatever happens at that trial (assuming it doesn’t get thrown out) should be pretty interesting. On paper Apple appears to be attempting to attain the moral high ground (something that will have boycotters spluttering into their morning coffees) while Samsung’s defense so far appears to be based around befuddling the jury.

As a brief aside, Mike Elgan said in his article on the subject that "Apple sues when it thinks it can win a patent-infringement case". But I’m afraid I have a far more cynical view. I don’t think Apple took Samsung, HTC, or Motorola to court because it believed it could win, I think it did so in order to delay and disrupt the sale of rival products. Far from a noble aim, but all’s fair in love and patent wars.

Maybe I just lack a certain moral fiber, but patent squabbles between giant corporations really don’t fire me up enough to want to throw my tech toys out of the pram. I’d rather Apple wasn’t suing its rivals (rise above, and all that), but if that’s what it feels it needs to do, then that’s its decision.

And while unlike the boycotters I might not get to sit back and bask in the glow of my perceived ethical brilliance, at least I’m not stuck using a smaller, shoddier tablet and waiting for exciting new iOS apps to finally trickle down to Android…

Photo Credit: Joe Wilcox

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