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BLOG: The Apple vs. Samsung decision is a game-changer

Richard Hoffman | Aug. 28, 2012
Samsung's big patent fight loss to Apple could have far-reaching consequences for smartphone makers, especially those that have adopted many of the gesture-based elements users now expect, says Richard Hoffman.

If different types of phones have variations not just in design and detail, but in fundamental function, -- especially basic interaction elements -- one powerful effect could be increased "lock-in" to one manufacturer or another. "Motor memory" -- how we physically interact with things -- even more than mental processes, takes time and effort to unlearn and relearn. If you have to spend a lot of time re-learning fundamental aspects of how to use a phone just to switch brands, how often would you make that switch without some extremely compelling reason? Some analysts have pointed out that the Apple-Samsung case could spur increased innovation, as manufacturers go to greater lengths to avoid infringing on current and future patents. This may well be true, but it could also lead to decreased ability to move between devices as core aspects of their use diverge.

Finally, if Apple's patents stand, the most likely scenario is that Samsung and other smartphone makers will feel compelled to license Apple's patents for some negotiated dollar amount per handset. This adds extra profits to Apple's already deep coffers, increases its industry-leading profit margin and lowers the profits of rival smartphone makers. That's likely to make it marginally harder for them to compete. Apple then makes real money, in perpetuity, from competitors' smartphone sales.

In short: Apple is in the driver's seat here, and now has the clear threat of legal action with a very successful suit already on the books to increase its leverage and license demands.

The fight with Samsung echoes an earlier Apple battle. In 1988, it filed a lawsuit charging Microsoft with violating copyright laws by copying the "look and feel" of the Macintosh GUI in creating the then-new Windows OS. Microsoft won that case hands-down, and Apple learned, among other things, that copyright law is a weak foundation from which to defend your intellectual territory. That loss likely informed its successful strategy of numerous patent filings covering as much as possible of its work in smartphones and tablets.

If Apple had won that suit against Microsoft, imagine how different, the computing landscape might look today. If the Apple-Samsung verdict stands, we may see a replay of that scenario in the smartphone and tablet world. And given the increased convergence of desktop and phone/tablet operating systems, environments and interfaces by both Apple and Microsoft, the impact of this decision could have farther-reaching consequences.


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