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.

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  1. identicon
    Tom, 12 Jan 2007 @ 2:00am

    Uhh, no.

    Wow what a ridiculous argument, which is actually an argument against ALL patents.

    There are a couple ways to protect your inventions, one being patents, where you document it completely but then get legal protection for a set period of time, and the other is basically trying to keep it secret, trade secrets.

    The problem with trade secrets and technology such as Apple's is that these days it's pretty easy to reverse engineer a lot of. Thus patents are the only way to protect their investment in R&D. And believe me, Apple has put a lot into R&D for the iPhone.

    And no, it's absolutely not true that if something was expensive to research and develop it should be hard to copy. A lot of research that costs a lot of money can be spent on developing a technology, but once that technology is figured out it could be something trivial to copy.

    So, say the iPhone really is as great as it seems and Apple does make a buttload of money off of it, why should Apple have to do research for Motorola, Nokia, etc. These are competing for-profit companies we're talking about, they have no obligation to each other.

    If anything, Apple is doing a HUGE service to the consumer by forcing all these other companies to finally innovate, which will hopefully lead to even better technology. I, for one, would like to see other cell phone companies create some technology of their own, rather than just clone everything in the iPhone (I know we'll see some of that though too...)

    The only ones hurt by the iPhone will be the other phone manufacturers if they don't get off their asses and do some serious innovation, especially in their interfaces... THANK GOD for that. I mean look at some of these (non-iPHone) cell phone interfaces!

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