Mixed Feelings on Samsung/Apple Verdict

I’ve been thinking about the verdict in the Apple vs. Samsung case, and I’m having mixed feelings about the whole thing. It is technically a win, and there are dire predictions about what this means for the future of smartphones. I don’t buy into the worst case scenarios that Samsung and others are putting forward, but clearly things won’t be business as usual. I also don’t think this will necessarily be a meaningful shot in the arm for Windows Phone or even RIM.

Yay For Protecting Inventors?

The “protect my ideas” guy in me generally likes the idea that an inventor shouldn’t have their idea stolen by someone else. There is a part of me that despises others that feel that they can simply take whatever they want, without having to do the work, and potentially take business away from me. When someone steals your idea and uses it against you, then that is theft in fact: money that would have gone to you and gone to someone else. It is no different than if they lifted that money out of your wallet. The idea that stealing an idea isn’t really theft doesn’t hold here.

But let’s face reality: someone who is only bright enough to steal your idea, but not smart enough to come up with their own, is also not likely bright enough to take full advantage of your idea. That assumes, of course, that the person or organization “stealing” your idea is of a similar size and scale. If they are substantially larger, then the odds change, and it is in those cases where I think protection for the “little guy” makes sense. But in the case of Apple and Samsung, neither is “the little guy”, despite Apple’s attempt to portray themselves as such. Apple and Samsung of comparable sizes, comparable scales and both have a highly visible presence in the market. And despite this “theft”, Apple still manages to hold their own against Samsung when it comes to sales. On top of that, Android’s success wasn’t as much about copying Apple as it was about offering a broader range of products for a variety of prices, and with it a comparable ecosystem of apps and content.

Even if Android, and specifically Samsung, hadn’t copied Apple (at least, according to the ruling in this case), it is still very likely it would have gained the market share it has now. Google and Android have done a far better job of attracting developers and content creators when compared to Microsoft and RIM. That ecosystem is a big part of Android’s success, and Samsung was in no way instrumental in making that happen. It wasn’t just that some elements were “similar” between iOS and Android. Windows Phone has similar, familiar concepts. Their phones are miniature slate tablets using touch interfaces. But Android has 60% of the smartphone market and Windows Phone has about 2%. The results say that there is something else at work here, not just that iOS and Android both happened to have rounded rectangles and similar gestures.

How Bad Will It Get?

While the appeals process is underway, the rest of the world moves on. Yes, developers and product manufacturers are still waiting for some closure. That won’t happen until this makes its way to the US Supreme Court. In the mean time, people will continue to buy Android phones, even if they come from someone other than Samsung. Yes, Samsung is the biggest, but they aren’t the only one that makes a respectable touchscreen phone (and personally, I prefer the HTC units. The Samsung touch screens I’ve worked with have been a bit dodgy at times). I wouldn’t be surprised to see some modification of the verdict in appeal. I don’t expect it to get overturned fully, but I wouldn’t be surprised if some elements are softened a bit, particularly around concepts that probably shouldn’t have been patentable in the first place.

So the world will carry on. I don’t see this as doing much to put a dent in Samsung’s or Android’s position in the market. Why? Because this verdict only applies within the boundaries of the United States. Yes, the US is a very large mobile market. But it isn’t the only large mobile market. Europe and Asia also represent very, very large markets, in some ways larger than the US. When you look at who is dominant where, it becomes obvious that a verdict in the US isn’t nearly as big a blow as some might see it to be: Apple and iOS are bigger in the US than other parts of the world. The reality is that iOS is far larger in its own backyard, relative to its size in other parts of the world. So this verdict will, at best, slow down one platform manufacturer in a market where they aren’t the biggest player anyways. It does nothing to stop them outside the borders of the United States.

About Windows Phone

For all of Microsoft’s attempts to make this a win for Windows Phone, I’m not convinced it will change much at all. So suddenly, a platform that has a trivial amount of the market suddenly becomes compelling because a single smartphone manufacturer is curtailed in a single country? People are ignoring Windows Phone, not because it is a bad platform, but because it doesn’t have either the ecosystem or recognition like Android and iOS. On paper, Windows Phone should be doing well. It presents a modern, touch based interface. It is based on the mini-tablet form that iPhone and the Androids follow. The devices sold are of comparable price, quality and performance. They offer the same sorts of hardware features (cameras, GPS, 3-axis accelerometers, gyros, compass, etc). They offer similar flexibility as Android phones, such as allowing external/additional storage and few limits on external accessories. In terms of design, I’ve seen nothing in the Android world that looks as good as the Lumias do.

But being similar on paper isn’t the same as being similar to customers. The biggest strike against Windows Phone? A substantially smaller selection of apps. Android and iOS have about 600,000 apps each. Debate the quality of those apps all you want, but that is a lot. Windows Phone has over 100,000 apps. It has fewer. And that is all that will matter in the minds of most consumers: two platforms have more. It is about risk. Will I find the apps I need or want? Sure, the odds are that you will with 100,000 to choose from. But the odds are better than you will find what you want or need in 600,000 apps. That alone will continue to encourage people toward Android and iOS, and away from Windows Phone. This verdict is unlikely to be a meaningful shot in the arm for Windows Phone in the long-term.

Still A Waste Of Resources

I still stand by my comment that, ultimately, this legal action was a waste of money and time. Both sides spent tens of millions of dollars on lawyers that could have been spent on designers, coders and engineers. It is money that could have been directed at product development and product improvement. Sure, if Apple prevails at the end of the appeals process, they will have gained $1 billion or so. But in the mean time, tens of millions will be spent by both companies fighting this out instead of working on product. Worse, it will put a chill into invention, simply because this sort of thing will embolden the patent trolls. While you shouldn’t make business decisions based on fear, this may frighten enough people to get them to back down, or give up, at least for the US market. The only up-side to this verdict is that it has no weight or bearing anywhere else in the world. The down-side, though, is that Apple and others will continue to pump money into the pockets of their lawyers to fight this battle elsewhere. And that is money that would be better spent on other endeavours.