Monday, August 27, 2012

Apple wins; Samsung loses. Consumers win and lose?

Apple win could impact smartphone development - MarketWatch

Somewhere in Tech heaven, Steve Jobs has an enormous smile that could be only surpassed by the chesire cat.  In the biography, Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson, Jobs claimed that the Android software was stolen from Apple with the presence of Eric Schmidt on Apple's board.  With that claim, Jobs vowed to go "thermonuclear" on Google and prove Android is a fraud.

The recent decision on the patent fight was not exactly what Steve would have wanted but it got pretty close.  The jury of the U.S. District Court in San Jose, CA awarded Apple $1 billion in damages against Samsung Mobile, the flagship Android smartphone developer.  It wasn't Google but it might as well have been.  The verdict essentially validated Apple's claim that various design features of the Samsung-flavor of Android infringed on its design patents, making Samsung smartphones largely indistinguishable from the iPhone.  For example, the multi-touch feature and even the physical look-and-feel of the mobile devices were just two of the six patents that the court upheld.

In Job's now virally famous Stanford commencement speech, Jobs took a stab at Microsoft, saying, "And since Windows just copied the Mac, it's likely no personal computer would have [multiple typefaces or proportionately spaced fonts]." So, what would happened to the industry (maybe to the world) if Apple did have a patent on the Mac design features, stopping Microsoft from "copying" it?  Would we be stuck in a universe dominated by Mac with a litter of green and black screens with dot-matrix font?  Would have Microsoft or anyone else with their backs against the wall actually built something truly, innovatively better than the Mac?  We will never know but now a parallel looms for smartphones and tablets.

"Good artists copy.  Great artists steal" is a quote often attributed to the Spanish artist Pablo Picasso, whom Steve Jobs admired.  Ironically, the most famous person to use this quote extensively was Steve Jobs. (See Youtube clip, Steve was never famous for integrity but hypocrisy he might be.  Perhaps the intent of Picasso or Jobs when using those words were that great artists can capitalize on others' idea to the point the world recognizes them as the authority or source of the innovation.  A great example of this is the iPod or iPhone.  They weren't the first movers in the MP3 or smartphone markets but now are the de facto standard of quality and innovation.

So, what's wrong with copying then?  It worked for Apple but now no one else can do it.  A great example is the luxury car market.  In the late 1990s, Lexus, Infiniti, and Acura entered the market as the premium brands of Toyota, Nissan, and Honda, respectively.  Despite being owned by Japanese companies, the look and feel of the cars from these brands did not resemble their home country.  They actually looked more European, if not facsimiles of Mercedes, BMW, and Jaguar.  Before the entry of the Japanese luxury brands,  it can be argued that the European "Big Three" had a lock on premium automobiles.  With that, next year editions of vehicles possessed iterative improvements that were largely negligible to the buyer.  Even though the value to the customer actually decreased year-to-year, consumers still bought.  Enter the Japanese with their industry-known quality standards and add-in European design flavor.  The European "Big Three" suddenly woke up and their vehicle innovations soared.  In fact, you might even say they copied some of those Japanese innovations that modernized the often stuffy and luxurious models of old.

Now look at the experience of Apollo 13.  Most remember the history of it from the motion picture of the same name.  Three astronauts were set for lunar landing of the moon but aborted due to an explosion of an oxygen tank.   The astronauts and mission command in Houston did not have set procedures or past lessons learned to handle this emergency.  They had nothing to copy or steal.  Their backs were against the wall.  Because of those circumstances, the team was able to generate original ideas to save the astronauts and the space module.  Those ideas quickly became part of the NASA book on standard operating procedures.

Now the mobile device landscape is going to enter its own inflection point.  Will Apple continue to innovate with competition unable to ride its "coat tails"?  History tells us not, but Apple is not an ordinary company.    Will Android and its universe of vendors have an Apollo 13 moment and usher in a new standard that will send Apple scrambling to innovate?

As for consumers, in the short run they will likely lose because the efforts of vendors to build iPhone-quality phones without emulating iPhone will probably fall short of expectations.  Kinda like the first touch screen phones that tried and failed to compete with iPhones.  They were derided as knock-offs.  In the long run, Android vendors will be compelled to pour more resources into their design and development.  In five years or so, we might actually see the iPhone "killer."

In the meantime, pray that the spirit of Jobs stays at Apple, where creativity, and not the lawyers, leads the innovation charge for sake of customers and technology advancement.

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