The #BoycottApple hashtag was trending hard on Google+ last week.
No, I’m not talking about the boycott-Apple-to-save-Chinese-workers, the boycott-Apple-because-they-discriminate-against-Iranians or even the boycott-Apple-because-they-support-gay-marriage movements.
I’m talking about the boycott-Apple-because-they’re-using-the-courts-to-compete-against-Android-devices movement.
Specifically, the call to boycott is based on anger over Apple’s successful attempt to ban both the Samsung Galaxy Nexus phone and the Galaxy 10.1 tablet. An appeals court temporarily lifted the ban on the phone yesterday, but upheld the tablet ban.
Here’s why the call for a boycott is misguided and futile.
It’s based on the myth of Apple exceptionalism
Boycott Apple advocates pretend to believe what they do not (or should not) believe, which that companies that don’t sue over patents don’t sue because they’re nice, or virtuous or believe in the free exchange of ideas.
The reality is that they don’t sue because they don’t have a case.
When companies have a patent case they think they can win, they sue. In fact, Apple itself is currently defending itself from patent infringement cases brought by China’s Zhi Zhen Internet Technology, and Silicon Valley’s Noise Free Wireless.
And Apple has been sued in the past by Nokia (which won the case), and others.
And Apple isn’t the only company suing over alleged patent infringement by Android or Android devices.
Publicly held companies pursue their own interests, and the interests of their shareholders. The truth is that patent lawsuits are trivially inexpensive for big companies to pursue, compared with potential benefits. There’s no downside to suing over patent infringement if you think you might win.
When companies file lawsuits that are frivolous on their face, they go nowhere or are tossed out of court. When Apple and Motorola were going at it last month, the judge got fed up and told both parties to get out and not come back.
The bottom line is that, yes, Apple sues when it thinks it can win a patent-infringement case. And so does every other company.
It’s based on the myth that Apple is not exceptional
While Apple is not exceptional in pursuing its interests in the courts when it can just like any other company, Apple is, in fact, exceptional in other ways. Let’s start with the least controversial.
Apple is very different from, say, Samsung, in the number of product lines it sells. For example, Apple has one phone and Samsung has dozens. Samsung phones mix and match features and technologies, and Samsung is far more promiscuous in the application of ideas on different phones. Samsung phones have many form factors, user interfaces, input approaches, design features.
This variety by Samsung both increases the likelihood that another company will believe that Samsung is violating a patent, and also reduces the impact on Samsung of being sued or having one of their devices banned.
Extreme device variety also “waters down” Samsung’s focus on any one feature or technology. For example, while Apple has to concern itself over the patentability of, say, “slide to unlock,” Samsung may have to worry about “slide to unlock,” “pinch to unlock,” “clap to unlock,” “unlock to unlock” and “never unlock.” (I’m making up these techniques for unlocking, but you get the idea.)
Just to pursue this further: the ban on Samsung’s phone in the US barely registers on the company’s overall revenue or profit. Samsung not only makes a gazillion phones and tablets, they also make refrigerators, vacuum cleaners, cameras, stoves, printers and so on.
However, if the iPhone were banned in the US, the company would buckle under the impact. Apple has just one phone. And that phone represents a massive percentage of the company’s revenue.
Because of this, Apple must win in the absurd patent game as a necessary condition for their survival. They invest massively in R&D, register patents early and often, and pursue patent claims with extreme prejudice.
It’s based on the myth that Apple doesn’t innovate
The more controversial point about Apple exceptionalism is that Apple is, in fact, exceptionally innovative. They really do invent a lot of stuff and they really do pioneer a lot of truly new design ideas. I dare anyone who disagrees with me on this to visit Patently Apple, randomly read at least 10 posts, then come back and tell me Apple doesn’t innovate.
More germane to the patent system as it exists, Apple uses the system. They not only innovate, they do so early and fully patent every possible invention or idea.
Apple not only patents ideas that they intend to build into products, they patent ideas that they might, someday, conceivably and possibly build into products.
In other words, Apple is not only innovative, they are proactive and masterful at playing the patent game.
It diverts opposition from the real problem: The patent system
The Boycott Apple people tend to be confused about what they’re criticizing when they criticize Apple.
For example, when critics say that Apple didn’t invent this technology or that technology, they think they’re criticizing Apple when in fact they’re criticizing the patent system.
What they’re saying is that Apple’s methodology for which they were granted a patent is overly broad, and should not apply to slightly different methodologies or the whole idea should not be patentable.
In other words, they’re disagreeing with the rules.
Patents are a zero sum game. If Apple doesn’t apply for and then defend a patent, someone else will and ban Apple products. Those are the rules.
And so in order to defend itself, companies like Apple play by the rules because to not do so would be suicide.
The horrible truth is that all phones theoretically violate patents. Every smart phone contains literally thousands of patentable ideas, many of which are claimed by multiple companies or individuals.
And patents are bought and sold like pork futures, with the intellectual property rights for these ideas being granted to whichever company has the money to buy and defend them.
All smart phone companies have to deal with the same shitty patent systems, both in the US and abroad.
The rules are known, or should be.
So when a Samsung gadget gets banned, it’s Samsung’s fault more than Apple’s. They have dangled this object of desire in front of consumers, but failed to do what’s necessary to keep it on the market, either because of the patents they didn’t file, or the timing of those patents, or the inadequacy of their case in court or whatever.
Even though Samsung is more at fault than Apple, the real villains are the patent systems, especially the US patent system. It’s understaffed, underfunded and overwhelmed. The rules are the wrong ones. The US patent system is a train wreck and needs to be fixed.
Focusing on Apple suggests that the solution to our patent woes is for Apple to voluntarily not use the existing patent system, to be nice, leave money on the table and stop being greedy.
That’s an absurd idea. But more specifically, it’s a lost opportunity to focus anger over the Samsung Galaxy Nexus at the real problem and the real solution, which is an overhaul of the patent system.
It’s just haters talking to each other
In addition to being misguided, the Boycott Apple movement is futile. It will have no impact on Apple, Samsung, Google, the industry and on users.
Why? Because almost all the Boycott Apple people are Apple haters anyway — devoted Android fans who wouldn’t be caught dead carrying an iPhone.
Boycotts only work when they convince buyers not to buy, and have no effect when they merely provide non-buyers with another reason not to buy.
The Boycott Apple people aren’t crazy. Something is wrong, and something should be opposed. But the thing that is wrong is the patent system, not the companies who are forced to play by its obsolete and irrational rules.
(Image courtesy of Phlash Tha)