Apple vs. HTC: No matter who wins, we lose

Apple is taking aim at Android in the patent courts by suing Nexus One maker HTC. This is a bad idea for just about everybody

Apple has lawyered up and is out for blood -- or at least, blood money. Its patent suit against Taiwanese handset maker HTC is further proof that the cold war between Cupertino and Mountain View is quickly escalating into a shooting match with live ammo.

Apple could easily have chosen to sue Palm, whose WebOS functionality closely mimics the iPhone's. But it's not worried about Palm -- it's worried about Google. And HTC makes most of the cool Android phones, from the G1 to the Nexus One.

(Several HTC Windows Mobile phones are also implicated in the suit, but really, who cares? That's like Mercedes suing over the Yugo.)

Among the 20 claims submitted to the Federal Court and the International Trade Commission are patents for the seemingly straightforward "Object Oriented Graphic System," the widely used "Unlocking a Device By Performing Gestures on an Unlock Image" and the brain-twisting "Method for providing automatic and dynamic translation of object oriented programming language-based message passing into operation system message passing using proxy objects." Whew.

Interestingly, two of those (Nos. 1 and 3) predate the iPhone by more than a decade. Apple's really reaching deep into its patent toy chest here.

I'm not a trademark attorney (thank god), and I truly believe people who invent groundbreaking technologies should reap the rewards -- but not at the expense of stifling innovation elsewhere. Even if you created the first device that lets you make things happen when you smear your finger across a touch screen doesn't mean that you should be able to prevent other folks from making a better way to smear. That is the beauty of open source, which Google embraced with Android.

Imagine how the automobile industry would have evolved if, say, Henry Ford managed to patent the steering wheel and the accelerator pedal, while Walter P. Chrysler owned the rights to the stick shift and the rearview mirror. Every time we climbed behind the wheel -- er, inside the driver seat -- of an unfamiliar car, we'd be starting from scratch.

Of course, there are companies who simply buy up patents on the open market and wait for an opportunity to pounce on somebody with deep pockets. The fact that the U.S. patent system still keeps trolls alive and well fed (especially those who line up at the trough in the Eastern District of Texas) is an ongoing disgrace.

Apple is not a patent troll by any stretch. It actually makes products people buy, and it filed suit in Delaware, not Texas. Still, it sends a chill through the air at precisely the time that mobile computing is getting really exciting -- in large part because Apple finally has some serious competition. And you get the feeling Apple's lawyers are just getting warmed up.

(Who will Apple sue next? Those snarky geeks at eSarcasm have some ideas.)

These suits might serve Apple well in the short term -- and cause angina for HTC, Google, Palm, and anyone else who gets locked into the Cupertino cross-hairs. But it won't serve consumers well. Litigation is expensive (guess who'll be paying for it?) and handset makers may grow timid about pushing the envelope on new features. Imagine buying your next phone in two years, only it does less than the one you have now. Who wins then? If these moves ultimately slow down the adoption of smartphones, even Apple will feel the pain.

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Robert X. Cringely

InfoWorld
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