iPhone OS: The Lawsuits Begin

Well Apple dropped a powerbomb of patent charges on HTC today.

It’s been over 3 years since the iPhone introduction which established the new bar for Smartphone operating systems. It was like the moment the Mac was introduced (but with a keynote, not a groundbreaking commercial by Ridley Scott). Hate Apple, love Apple, there’s little point arguing that nothing in the Smartphone industry has ever been the same.

Microsoft’s development of Windows was obviously heavily influenced by the Mac OS, and Apple sued. Now no matter which company you think was in the right, Apple lost the case mainly due to previously licensing some technology to Microsoft and court’s view that look and feel of a GUI was not enough evidence to push the case in Apple’s favor.

At MacWorld SF 2007, Steve Jobs assured the Mac faithful that Apple was not going to lose the iPhone advantage and that Apple had patented over 200 technologies related to the iPhone. The implication was clear from Jobs that Apple was not going to lose the iPhone advantage to copiers the same way that Jobs felt like Microsoft “stole” the Mac OS. Apple has not licensed any of the iPhone tech to anyone, and Apple has patented as many elements of the iPhone OS as specifically as possible.

Now, Nokia and Apple are in some giant pissing contest over patents and royalties that basically seems like two huge companies just wasting time if you ask me. Apple did hit Nokia with a countersuit detailing all kinds of multi-touch elements, but again that appeared to be a simple case of (said in my best Al Pacino voice minus the f-bombs) “Sue me? Sue you!!!”

Apple’s suit against HTC seems very, very different.

For starters, there’s the quote by Steve Jobs from the press release;

“We can sit by and watch competitors steal our patented inventions, or we can do something about it. We’ve decided to do something about it,” said Steve Jobs, Apple’s CEO. “We think competition is healthy, but competitors should create their own original technology, not steal ours.”

Steve’s really serious about this one.

The first question is why HTC?  Most consumers are not familiar with HTC, despite the company being one of the largest cell phone producers. HTC is the primary manufacturers of some of the best Android phones and previously built the “best” WinMo phones. Both Android Phones and WinMo devices are listed in the lawsuit, although the WinMo phones are only listed as violating some DSP patents. Most analysts feel though that the Android OS is Apple’s primary target. If we are replaying the 1980s battle again, MacOS/iPhone OS vs Windows/Android. However, Apple didn’t sue Google. They are suing HTC which seems strange since a large part of the issues involved are OS related.

3 years later why is the first real lawsuit being issued when a parade of iPhone killers using multi-touch have been released? When did HTC cross the Rubicon? Apple a while ago hinted strongly that Palm was looking at some future legal action. To date though, Apple that has yet to file any type of suit against Palm. Gizmodo is suggesting that it’s related to Apple now winning this patent related to multi-touch screens. HTC  of all the Android vendors has been pushing the multi-touch envelope and the Nexus One is the most iPhone like of the Android Phones in terms of multi-touch hardware and software.

Initially, my gut reaction was to paraphrase Daring Fireball, if you cannot beat them, sue them. This was used initially to refer to Nokia’s patent attack on Apple. This Apple suit seemed similar to that. Save for one huge issue, Apple is beating HTC. There’s no real apparent need to sue them. Windows Phone Series 7 is a distant adversary. Nexus One while a best in class Android phone is not a real threat to the iPhone. Droid by Motorola on Verizon is a more credible threat, but one that can be partially disabled by releasing a CDMA iPhone. Apple can execute that counter any time either the chipsets they need are ready (CDMA/GSM combo) or the math with Verizon makes a CDMA only iPhone feasible (and Apple can close any gap with Verizon if they really need to). Android is clearly a threat to Apple, but to date Android has been feasting on  Nokia, Windows Mobile and Palm’s previous market share. During 2009, HTC appeared to be demonstrating this trend with their sales in 2009 (8.1 million) being in line with their 2008 sales (7.5 million), no real growth simply trading WinMo sales for Android sales.

If “being beat” is not the reason, then HTC must have clearly crossed some fixed line in the combination of hardware and OS patents that Apple felt forced their hand. Either defend the patents now or they are all meaningless. The launch of iPad and even more multi-touch technology and OS make protecting the multi-touch future vital for Apple. MoD has been suggesting in several articles that Apple has massive plans for multi-touch that extend from the iPhone to the iPad eventually to a future desktop OS that utilizes multi-touch pads and large screens for the next step in super customer friendly interfaces. This lawsuit with HTC is Apple determining if their next golden goose is defensible from “copiers”. Beat HTC, and Apple knows that their future OS plans can actually be protected this time.

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