After letting the initial dust Apple kicked towards HTC settle, my iPhone-toting compatriot Rene (I think you guys know him or something) and I had a discussion about the patent lawsuit and Apple in general. It was kicked off by this video dug up by the fine chaps at Gizmodo, and it made me realize, at least from my perspective atop my pile of defective Palm Pre phones, that Apple has changed as a company over the past year. Now before you go thinking that I’m so Apple-hating bozo from Cincinnati, be warned that I do like Apple products: I’ve been using and loving a MacBook Pro of one variety or another for the last six years, upgrade to the next version of OS X the day it’s available, and own both an Airport Extreme and an Apple TV. But I’m worried that Apple’s recent successes may be leading to a dark place. And that place is the land where innovation is forgotten.
Apple’s attack on HTC underscores two things for me. One: user interface patents are silly. It’s like patenting the chair and saying nobody else can make chairs and they’ll have to figure out different ways for people to sit. And no, couches and benches aren’t cool, they’re just big chairs. Two: Apple seems to have forgotten how to innovate and sees lawsuits as the only way to protect their business model.
It seems mighty silly to me to think that Apple is worried about HTC knocking off the iPhone as king of the smartphone hill. The iPhone is still relatively fresh (two and a half years on market) and the smartphone market itself is rapidly expanding. As Palm CEO Job Rubinstein says: there’s plenty of room for several large players. And I think I’d like it that way. Not just so Palm can stay around, but because having several large players ensures that there are multiple parties spurring innovation in each other and that the failing of one doesn’t result in the complete and utter dominance of the only other platform. In this case, the smartphone market is more like the automobile industry and less like the Windows-Mac duopoly that is desktop computing.
Either way, my fear is that Apple is instead going to rely on these sort of lawsuits as a way to maintain their fledgling dominance of the smartphone market. But it’s only going to result in really bad PR for Apple. The only claims that they can make are claims in principle that HTC is violating their patents, while HTC can argue in principle that those patents are a silly thing anyway. Apple certainly can’t argue that HTC’s alleged patent violations are cutting into Apple’s ridiculous profit margin - the people that buy Android or Windows phones aren’t the type that are out to buy an iPhone anyway, and it’s not like there’s a person on the planet that hasn’t heard of the iPhone.
But as I think of it, this whole lawsuit feels indicative of a new mindset at Apple. It’s been a large, but unnoticed, shift in the way they do business. Apple has move away from being the underdog innovator to being a defensive maintainer. Look back at the products Apple has unveiled in the past year and tell me what’s truly innovative:
3rd gen iPod Shuffle? We moved the controls to the earbuds just because. It doesn’t make any sense, but we’ll do it anyway.
iPhone 3GS? Make it faster and give it more memory. Pack it all into the same package as before and let’s call it a day. Wait, no, let’s call it the 3GS - it’s much more hip that way.
iPhone OS 3.0? MMS and tethering! And a whole tone of new APIs for unexplored niche products, just because we can. The iPhone user experience? No need to change that. It works, and it can’t possibly be made better.
New MacBook Pros? We’re going to revolutionize the laptop computer by adding, wait for it, SD card readers! Yeah, that’s awesome and totally unlike anything anybody’s ever done before. We even did a study to see if that’s what people wanted. What they don’t want is Blu-ray or HDMI. Those are bags ‘o hurt, I say. People want iTunes.
New iMac? Make it bigger and use a better screen. Also, a screen this big doesn’t need Blu-ray either. It’s far too good for that. Use iTunes instead; who even wants the option of 1080p video off a disc? Pfft.
Magic Mouse? Okay, I’ll give Apple this one, adding multi-touch gestures to the mouse is a really different move. But if the mouse is the only cool thing you’ve done...
iPad? It’s magical, it’s amazing, it’s beautiful, it’s a giant iPod Touch and fails to provide and real innovation above and beyond what you can already do on an iPhone and evel loses several features, it’s the iPad! (the tech media goes wild, soils themselves, and then thinks about how silly and underwhelming the whole thing is when they’ve got new pants).
Don’t get me wrong, I still love my MBP (ExpressCard slot and all) and OS X. But Apple’s competitors are threatening to out-innovate Apple at every turn. Android 2.0 (with HTC’s help) and Palm webOS have far outpaced the iPhone OS user experience, so much so that the only thing the iPhone has going for it is all the apps and iTunes (which itself in need of something more than major innovation). Windows Phone 7 Series has turned my idea of how a mobile OS should work completely on its head, and honestly, Windows 7 ain’t that bad. I no longer dread booting up Parallels.
Now, we may very well be in a lull when it comes to Apple’s innovative progress, but these are the kind of lulls that can kill a company. Technological development is moving faster than ever and the multi-year lulls that struck Palm circa 2006 and Apple circa 1994 are the kind of lulls that can kill a company today. The market has changed so dramatically that even with arguably the most innovative mobile OS out there Palm is struggling to recover from a few years of uninspired products.
This new defensive, offensive, and numbers-touting (look at how many apps we have!) Apple worries me. Apple’s innovations have kicked the industry in the head multiple times before, but now it looks like the tables have been turned.
Of course, I could be completely wrong and be blown out of the water by iPhone OS 4.0 and OS X 10.7. But the bitter pill that the iPad, and now this lawsuit, have left me with has me concerned for Apple’s foresight. Maybe they’ve gotten too big and lost touch with what made Apple the success that it is today. But in the end, getting all defensive and trying to sue their way out of a problem is only going to hurt Apple and the industry as a whole.
Derek Kessler is editor of TiPb's sibling site, PreCentral.net.