Apple's Poorly Picked Battle
Apple's been at war with companies it thinks have ripped off its intellectual property, and sometimes it appears Cupertino really does have valid reasons to take its rivals to court. Samsung, for example, is a worthy target. But in its failed lawsuit against Spanish tablet maker NT-K, Apple simply went too far.
11/03/11 5:00 AM PT
While Apple and Samsung have been beating on each other over looks and patent issues -- lawsuits in which one company claims the other is copying its design in one way or another -- a small Spanish tablet maker, Nuevas Tecnologias y Energias Catala, aka "NT-K," has won a court case with Apple in Spain.
Why is this important to Apple lovers? So far, as near as I can tell, Apple may have been acting like a big, nasty corporation without a lot of judgement here. There is no doubt that former Apple CEO Steve Jobs had a serious beef with Android as an OS, believing it was a shameless ripoff of Apple's work, but this case seems to point toward Apple taking out its problems on the little guy.
Back Up the Truck
First of all, I don't have a problem with large companies taking on small companies in competitive ways. Sure, I tend to root for the little guys, but that doesn't mean the little guy is always right. And if a small company truly rips off someone's real innovation, patents or distinctive trade dress through outright copying, they won't get any love from me.
Of course, in the cases of Samsung and Apple, you're looking at two more evenly matched tech giants. When I look at the Samsung Galaxy Tab tablet, and then I look at the iPad, and then I look at some of the early marketing from Samsung and see the conspicuous lack of a Samsung logo for some markets, not to mention all the Samsung accessories for the Galaxy Tab ... I still find it hard to believe that someone at Samsung didn't intentionally try to replicate the iPad.
But as for NT-K's tablet, the A91, the design is about as far away from an iPad as you could possibly get. It's chunky with curves, it's far from seamless, it sports a widescreen design, it has a side position for the camera lens, there are three buttons instead of one, plus it has several clunky old-school ports. It's a long ways away from a work of art. And it has a kickstand. I can't imagine any child looking at an iPad and an A91 and getting confused about which was which.
Of course, maybe there's some piece of a patent here that's been violated, but even the "swipe to lock or unlock" patent that Apple has doesn't even seem to apply -- the screen shot on the NT-K site shows a lock logo for that sort of action. Either way, none of this matters because people make judgements based on covers -- as Apple well knows -- and when anyone looks at the covers of the A91 and iPad, they've got to be scratching their heads.
But It Has Rounded Corners!
If I remember right -- and I can't find where it was now -- part of Apple's issue with the Galaxy Tab was its four curved corners that mimicked the iPad's gorgeous round edges. As a reader pointed out back in August when I wrote about Samsung, the company had produced a photo frame product that looked somewhat similar to today's iPad. It had rounded corners. (Stick with me here.)
When I was reading the Steve Jobs bio by Walter Isaacson, I read a part in which Jobs hollers at one of his software engineers. Jobs wanted him to create rectangles with rounded corners as part of the graphical user interface for the first Macintosh. "Rectangles with rounded corners are everywhere!" Jobs reportedly said before dragging the engineer out for a walk about town to show him car windows and billboards and street signs, all with rounded corners.
So everyone ought to be able to, by now, create anything they want with rounded corners, NT-K included.
But It Gets Worse
It all started in November 2010 when Apple managed to wrangle customs to keep NT-K from importing its own tablet, then threatened the company with criminal charges too.
"We have tried several times to explain and demonstrate both the customs as Apple products were significantly different, to no avail," the company wrote on its blog (translated via Google).
As for the criminal charges, I was floored. I don't know much about Spanish law, but that seemed out of line. Like I said before, when I look at the A91 and the iPad, I can't see one iota of piracy going on here.
Florian Mueller, an intellectual property and patent analyst who blogs about patent issues with a focus on wireless and mobile devices, pointed out this seemingly huge misstep by Apple.
"Considering that this was not a case of product piracy but just a dispute over whether or not Apple has exclusive design rights covering NT-K's Android-based products, I think it's absolutely outrageous that Apple tried to attack its rival under criminal law. Having a commercial dispute is one thing, but going down the criminal law avenue is totally unreasonable," he wrote.
Instead of giving up, NT-K decided to fight it out in court, and it eventually won. Next up? NT-K is suing Apple for damages, lost profits and moral damages. Apple has a big legal machine, so who knows how it will actually shake out.
Meanwhile, Why Do I Care?
It is highly unlikely that I'll ever buy an NT-K product. For me to buy a tablet with that many holes in the case, well, they would have to pay me to carry it around.
But Apple, oh boy. I have great love for Apple, but there are at least two major missteps the company made here that make we wonder what the heck they where thinking:
- Criminal charges for piracy? Someone had to have known that this situation couldn't possibly turn out well -- bad judgement. In fact, all it has done is give ammunition to Apple haters who believe it's just another evil corporation, and
- if this was part of an effort to squash Android, I think it's pretty underhanded way of taking on Google. It's kind of like this: Say you have a problem with a particular newspaper, so instead of taking the newspaper head-on, you attack the kids -- the paper boys -- who deliver the newspapers every day, threatening them with lawsuits and criminal charges. Sure, it might work as a tactic, but come on. I expect better out of my hero companies.
In my mind, there's only one way Apple is going to win these battles (and the battle will really become about maintaining consumer goodwill): if they only pursue smart lawsuits that clearly look like Apple has been wronged. When a company starts wielding lawsuits and regulations like a bully with a stick, the comeuppance just arrives all too soon.