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. icon
    Gabriel Tane (profile), 15 Jan 2007 @ 9:00am


    "does no one remember nextel, with their exclusive "push to talk" walkie-talkie feature? that was copyrighted and patented. however, the copyright was only for so long and then the technology became public domain. hence how you now see, boost mobile and their slogan, "where you at?" along with cingular's version coupled with verizon, who was about to introduce their own radio cell phone before the nextel/verizon merger."
    -the silent one

    The problem w/ the Nextel patent is that Cingular, Verizon, AT&T (they were still around at the start of Nextel, right?), Sprint, et al, could have been innovating on the concept of PTT cell phones from the start and Nextel would have been improving on their "invention" as well. Think of how much more improved and advanced it would have been by now. But no. Nextel had their little rest period where they did nothing. I had Nextel for a long time... my first cell phone, actually... and I never saw any improvement over that initial "neat little PTT feature".

    BTW, didn't Nextel merge w/ Sprint? I have Verizon and I don't know anything about Nextel coming in.

    "additionally, the iphone is going to be a highly desireable item simply because of that one little lowerc case "i" in front of the phone. as soon as i saw the phone, i was entranced, and said to myself, that is my next phone. the thing is just cool, and is an uber-geeks wet dream."
    -the silent one

    You're comment about the desirability of the i-Phone is right though. Read Mike's comments about why simply copying won't automatically beat out the original innovator. There is a lot of brand recognition and brand loyalty that would beat out any competition... if there actually was any. But instead, there will be almost no competition because of the artificial monopoly. And all because Apple was the first to put a few existing widgets together. (See my previous statement about what Apple hasn't actually done here.)

    Yeah, they innovated, but they also put an artificial barrier to keep anyone from innovating further behind them.

    "i'm glad that steve got a ton of patents for it, that way it will be a long while before cheap imitators come out with their versions but, adversely, it will also be a long time before prices come down to a respectable norm.

    my two cents."
    -the silent one

    You're glad they got the patents? And your reason is "that way it will be a long while before cheap imitators come out with their versions"? That's bad. That's why there will be very little innovation. I see what you're saying about cheap imitations that truly pale in comparison... but why would anyone buy those anyway? That's not a threat to Apple's competitiveness. No one will by a piece of crap simply because it's cheaper than a piece of gold.

    Your comment about the price is also right on. If Apple didn't have their artificial monopoly and had to compete in a truly free market, they would have to be very careful about how they price. I'm not saying that Apple is gouging here, but how much of that price could be shaved off if they had to worry about being undercut by a truly worth-while competitor... which they might...

    Keep an eye on LG's new phone. That's going to be the only competition for the i-Phone for a while. It'll also probably be the first new major patent war for the year. However, LG will probably say "Well, since Apple priced here, we'll price just below them" instead of pricing for competition (which could be a lot lower).

    I don't want to sound like I'm attacking you here, so please don't feel that I think you're stupid or anything. I've just read through all of the comments back and forth between Mike and a few other posters and I realized your comment illustrated some of those contested points quite clearly.


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