April 18, 2011

Sosumi: Apple vs. World for Phones, Tablets & the Future

Apple is not taking the war on iOS lying down. Bleeding from the wounds of a thousand cuts courtesy of the knives from the wide-ranging Android ecosystem, the company is taking on Samsung in the courtroom, targeting the Galaxy series of phones and tablets, just over a year from their initial suit against HTC, months after they sued Amazon for their App Store naming and six months after they sued Motorola for their use of multitouch. It's getting a little busy in Cupertino's legal counsel these days, and without suing their current nemesis, Google, outright, Apple seems to be throwing their significant market weight around. Despite being outnumbered, there's no question they believe they have both might and right on their side.

An early flashpoint in the return of Steve Jobs to Apple was the agreed upon cessation of legal wrangling with Microsoft over the famous "look and feel" lawsuit that claimed Windows had borrowed heavily from the Macintosh. Of course it had. But it was legal, thanks to shoddy early contracts. In the announcement of the stopped legalities, Jobs famously said, "We have to let go of the notion that for Apple to win, Microsoft needs to lose.'"

The ensuing (no joke) 13-plus years have put Apple in the driver's seat versus Microsoft in may places - in market capitalization, and leadership on music players, mobile phones, tablets and sheer brand desire. Microsoft didn't lose, per se, but they didn't have to get the verdict handed down from the courts. The verdict has been handed down in the world of public opinion and choice of quality products that saw the Zune dismissed as a joke and Windows Media become an also-ran, with CEO Steve Ballmer being a lightning rod of futility.

But this time around, Apple is the front-runner. They have market muscle, they have clear differentiation and leadership in hardware and software. They have an amazing app store with high quality software - a combination that is practically unmatched, even as Android has passed Cupertino by in numbers, and quality improves rapidly. This time around, they are not being loose with their contract work, patenting everything under the sun - from the implemented to the theoretical, and they are backing up those patent claims by taking on their competition directly. They refuse to go down without a fight.

It took Apple to change the way the world interpreted smartphones. It took Apple to introduce a successful tablet. It took Apple to turn the tide against peer to peer free file sharing and to a legitimate music and video store. In the years following their leadership, iTunes has in some ways been lapped by Spotify and other offerings. Android's flexibility means there are many choices in handsets which look remarkably like the iPhone. The Galaxy Tab, my tablet of choice, comes in sizes the iPad doesn't. But the volley of lawsuits smacks of preemptive desperation, not from a company in trouble by any means, but by one that wants to make sure it won't ever be.

In March of 2010, former Sun CEO Jonathan Schwartz wrote a post, titled, in a nod to Jobs, "Good Artists Copy, Great Artists Steal". In the post, he claimed that Apple going after the competition raised their visibility and relevancy to the market.
"Having watched this movie play out many times, suing a competitor typically makes them more relevant, not less. Developers I know aren’t getting less interested in Google’s Android platform, they’re getting more interested – Apple’s actions are enhancing that interest."
I can't say that more users and developers are flocking to Android directly because of Apple's moves, but it is wearing down on the good will that Apple has fostered with the general tech community. In a world where Apple has forged its own path, going practically partner free, owning their own pace and great margins, the rest of the world has been expected to choose a side opposed to their own - be it Android, be it Samsung's BADA OS, be it Blackberry or Microsoft Windows Phone 7 (see Nokia). By choosing to compete with Apple and to develop solutions that mirror the iPhones of the past, it's left them open for such courtroom drama.

At this point, I probably have nearly as many Samsung devices in my home as Apple devices. From the Galaxy Tab to my Galaxy S powered Epic 4G phone on Sprint and our TVs, I'm looking at Samsung logos many hours a day. So this particular lawsuit doesn't exactly give me the fuzzy feeling that Apple is going to enable a great electronics manufacturer to provide solutions users want.

At my last startup company, the market incumbent sued us immediately following the acquisition of patents they had gained through buying a dying market pioneer. The intent of the suit, which was baseless, was to prevent us from raising a $47 million D round, and to thwart our momentum. The lawsuit was a major distraction for years, and damaged our ability to sell to customers, until it was dismissed years later. I've seen the big market leaders come after the challengers to try and protect their turf, and it has me wary. I can't defend copying and a lack of innovation, but I hope customers don't suffer as the Valley goes to court.

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