Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Apple v Samsung: Internet Time meets Kickin it Old School

One of the realities of the world in Internet time is that copies are generated in a fraction of a second following the introduction of the original. Take location-based check-in as an example. Following the smart phone and location awareness, applications like Loopt explored the idea of knowing where all of your friends were. While many of us found this creepy, somebody thought that a better way might be one in which you voluntarily let your friends know where you were -- and check-in was born. There was Foursquare and a bunch of others that are gone now, then when Facebook and Yelp saw the interest those companies got, they added the feature to their software. Eventually, it got to the point where it wasn't a question of whether or not you were checking in, but more about what platform. And then we all got tired and it went away.

And through it all, we might have had conversations about whether Facebook or Yelp were copying Foursquare, but there was no patented stake in the ground that said, "this company came up with the concept of check-in, and everyone else is copying their stuff." Location-based check-in wasn't reallty even possible until we all started carrying geo-aware smart phones.

This type of stylistic feature copying is rampant on the web. It's common in art, music and literature. You might say that his art is like Dali, my writing is like Carlos Castaneda, that Justin Bieber sings like Melissa Ethridge, or that that snare drum sounds just like it was recorded in the eighties.

Along those same lines, one of the common copy discussions in the valley surrounds Zynga and how they rose up building games that were similar to games that other companies had produced. Take Words With Friends as an example. It's basically online Scrabble without the trademark. And Words With Friends isn't the only Scrabble-like game you can find on the iTunes App Store. There are dozens of similar games, if not more. As a game framework, Scrabble is over fifty years old. First person shooter and resource-based simulators are younger, but they are also more of a framework than a game. For many of these games, re-skinning the game is the game. Now, instead of your shooting character being a soldier, he is a bear or a squirrel. His targets are nuts or plasma-generating space turtles. And his weapons are a coffee grinder and a flaming, greasy spatula. And so you have thousands of games and copies.

Apple v. Samsung and the Patented World of the OS
With their vendor partnership, Samsung and Apple have a unique relationship. In August 2010, Apple met with Samsung to warn the company of the patents that believed that they were infringing. This All Things D post provides a nice summary, but if you want to check out the presentation, here's the link.

What I found noteworthy about this presentation is, I believe, a bit under-represented in the coverage of the trial. Specifically, as you go through this presentation, you'll find patents for technology that go back to 1992. Many aspects of the iPhone OS actually go back to innovations that were first developed for the desktop OS. What's more, when you reflect back on the idea and remember the technology of the time, you can see how something that seems almost like a trivial addition in the desktop world can be transformational in the smart phone environment. Perhaps prescient. Visionary.

Take one example of the patents in the Apple presentation, rotating the display orientation of a captured image (p35 of the file). The patent was filed back in 1996. My expectation is that this was filed in conjunction with those monitors that you could rotate. It's a not-particularly noteworthy feature that was primarily useful in the world of desktop publishing and too small monitors. And yet, coupled with the iPhone, it makes the display seem natural. Obvious. But before the iPhone, mobile devices didn't change orientation. There was only one up on a phone. But it didn't need to change orientation because it had a physical keyboard that told a clear story of bottom and top -- rotating didn't make sense.

Looking through Apple's patent presentation, you can see how the iPhone is culmination of 35 years of computer and OS development. It's the union of all of those sophisticated, thoughtful features that made an Apple an Apple -- that Windows users might have said, "didn't matter". It is not just a phone or another consumer device, it's personal computing transformed into a consumer-accessible mobile platform. It's a computer that makes you forget you're running a phone software application and tricks you into believing you're using a phone. In that same way, many of Apple's patents aren't simply something innovative approaches to a phone -- they're really computing innovations.

The iPhone and the Shot that Started the Revolution
Remember back in the days before the iPhone? At that time, the battle for the consumer market centered around the television. The television was going to be the intersection between the web and consumer. It was TVs. It was set-top boxes. It was smart media players like Blu-Ray. Nobody expected the iPhone to be the device that changed everything. Until it did.

Most consumer electronics companies don't develop their own operating system (most might even be an understatement). In that same way, many of the sophisticated functional elements that run underneath the hood of the iPhone are simply beyond the scope of their capabilities.

Now, I'm not a patent attorney, nor am I involved in the Apple v Samsung trial. But for me, this presentation was a compelling reminder of the difference between the original idea and the copy.

No comments: