Does The iPhone Need Patents?

from the questions,-questions dept

A bunch of folks have noted that Steve Jobs seemed mighty excited about the 200 or so patents Apple has filed around some of the technology involved in the iPhone (or whatever it's going to be called). A few have asked my opinion on the patents -- but not knowing what the patents are on, it's tough to have that much of an opinion on them specifically. However, Tim Lee points us to a blog post from someone who claims that the iPhone shows why patents are necessary, since "The investment necessary to develop a radically new interface like Multi-touch requires that Apple have a way to protect that investment. If Nokia, Sony, and Motorola could all simply copy it in their new phones, why would Apple even bother?" A few others have suggested the same sort of thing, but those two statements together actually seem to contradict each other. If it was so expensive to develop the multi-touch technology (which isn't new at all and similar technology has been demonstrated publicly in the past), then how would those other companies be able to just copy it? If it's so easy to copy, then it shouldn't have cost that much to develop.

Either way, Tim's response at the Tech Liberation Front is well worth reading, as he points out how silly that argument really is, noting that if the technology works as well as the demo, then Apple is going to make a ton of money with or without patents -- because people will buy the phone. In other words, the market is what gives Apple the incentives to develop these technologies, not patents. As Tim says: "Blafkin seems to believe that Nokia, Sony, and Motorola have a magical technology copying machine that can instantaneously duplicate Apple's innovations. But cloning a breakthrough new user interface is actually quite difficult. Just ask Microsoft, which spent six years trying to clone the Macintosh interface in the late 1980s.... Even if Nokia does a lot better than Microsoft and manages to clone the iPhone interface in, say, 2 years, that still means that they'll be perpetually 2 years behind. Why would consumers buy a knockoff of the 2007 iPhone from Nokia when they can buy the 2009 version from Apple?" That last point is key. The way to compete isn't by catching up and "copying" someone else, but to continuously innovate. Then, even if someone else catches up, you're still ahead -- and, if anyone can keep on coming up with new innovations, it appears to be Apple. So, even without patent protection, Apple would make more than enough money to recoup their development costs. But, the downside is that Apple doesn't need to keep up the same pace of innovation now. Others won't be able to compete and push Apple to innovate as fast because Apple can block them with patents. At the same time, those who don't want to live by Apple's rules (Cingular-only, 2 year contracts, no 3G, no ability to develop additional apps, no VoIP, etc.) but want a phone with a similar design will be out of luck. That's bad for innovation and bad for the economy.

Reader Comments

Subscribe: RSS

View by: Time | Thread


  1. identicon
    M Chamber, 11 Jan 2007 @ 8:04pm

    Flaw in the argument

    "If it's so easy to copy, then it shouldn't have cost that much to develop". You might hesitate before advancing your argument on such a debatable premise . The revolutionary ideas are of course the simplest ones, their reception often following a similar path: 1. the idea is absurd and runs counter to science, logic, and common sense; 2. some of it might be interesting in a provocative way but how innovative can it be if it is intended only and ever to shock?; 3: not a bad extrapolation from existing theory and practice but there is little in it that is really new; 3. interesting no doubt but have you seen my article, "the blah of blah viewed blahly?" I thought of it first. 4. It's so obvious one has to ask why they even bothered. Embarrassing really, shouldn't have published/designed/manufactured it.

    Granted, the little iPhone (lawsuit pending) probably doesn 't rank up there with the Big New Things historians of technology try to understand. But your argument reminds me of the vulgar marxist (I'm a refined marxist, so I should know) approach to new technology, seen occasionally in Europe today: property is theft, intellectual property is theft of a higher order, it's the man-hours and social implications that count. Granted, patents often get in the way of new ideas, and they're a nightmare for anyone trying something "new" at the lower end of the scale where little is startling. But might we ask: do we respond to innovation as a bureaucracy would or do we stop worrying and try something different?

Add Your Comment

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here



Subscribe to the Techdirt Daily newsletter




Comment Options:

  • Use markdown. Use plain text.
  • Remember name/email/url (set a cookie)

Follow Techdirt
Techdirt Gear
Show Now: Takedown
Advertisement
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Essential Reading
Techdirt Deals
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Techdirt Insider Chat
Advertisement
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Recent Stories
Advertisement
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads

Close

Email This

This feature is only available to registered users. Register or sign in to use it.