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Apple scruffs – The Free Software Column

Android phones are no more a ‘rip-off’ of the iPhone than the iPhone is a rip-off of earlier mobile phones and technology, argues Richard Hillesley...

Igor stravinsky once said that “a good composer does not imitate; he steals”, and ts eliot once said “immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.” even the idea that good art embraces the work of other good artists is not unique or original.

Good art is often a synthesis of thoughts and methodologies that have been poached and recycled from other sources. Very little is entirely new or original, and this understanding is equally true of other aspects of our lives. Ideas are cumulative and depend upon the evolution of techniques, observation and criticism, so it isn’t entirely surprising that inventions and discoveries are often made simultaneously by different people in different locations. It is still a matter of argument, for instance, whether the electric light bulb was invented by Joseph Swan or Thomas Edison, or the telephone by Elisha Gray or Alexander Graham Bell…

The style and design of the prevailing art and everyday items of our lives reflect the zeitgeist and are a refinement and an assimilation of the judgement of their times. Everybody copies everybody else, and style is not a patentable idea. So the cars of any era, however different they might have seemed in their time, look like other cars of that era – and the same can be said of, say, furniture, graffiti, clothes, hairstyles and mobile computer devices. A mobile phone is based on any number of software and hardware technologies developed by individuals and firms such as Nokia, Samsung and Motorola over a period of 30 years, but a modern phone looks very different to one of 30 years ago.

A mobile phone has some basic requirements. It has to be portable and fit in your pocket, preferably with smooth edges so that it doesn’t catch on the threads of your jacket or shirt. It has to be able to scan the web and talk to other phones. Sometimes we expect a little bit more, but the basic technology and appearance, albeit refined and improved, remains the same, and owes everything to 30 years of research and development by any number of companies and individuals who wormed away at the idea of touch screens and mobile communications, sometimes making breakthroughs and sometimes encountering failure.

The commercial breakthrough of the smartphone is dated to the launch of the iPhone in 2006, but the ideas and technology it embraced did not slip, clean and new, out of Apple’s ownership of one particular part of the ether. Apple was not alone in recognising that the mobile phone had a significant future, but had the advantage of being an outsider to the business, able to take a dispassionate view of the possibilities. Apple synthesised the best aspects of existing mobile phone technologies and smartphones, and added the marketing potential of the idea behind iTunes to make an iPhone out of an iPod – a phone that doubled as an iPod and a web device, and gave access to the Apple store. Marketing and the inertia of the competition did the rest.

The iPhone was the best mobile phone of its time, used the best hardware, and relied on clean design and usability principles. Apple made all the right decisions, sidestepped the competition and still holds a significant share of the market – but very few of the constituent parts of the iPhone were really unique or original. Competitors adopted Android, which had been under development since 2003, offered all the advantages of the iPhone and cost significantly less.

The justification for Apple’s subsequent righteous war against the Androids is the tendentious claim that Android is a ‘rip-off’ of the iPhone and “a stolen product”. The primary contention is that Samsung and Android have ripped off Apple’s style and look and feel, but Android is no more stolen from the iPhone than the iPhone is a ‘rip-off’ of the pioneering work of the likes of Motorola, Nokia and Samsung itself.

The instrument for Apple’s war has been the acquiescence of the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) and the US courts, ownership of scores of debatable utility and design patents, and its claims against Samsung and others of ‘trade dress infringement’. The good news in recent months is that some of these entitlements, such as Apple’s patent entitled ‘Touch screen device, method, and graphical user interface for determining commands by applying heuristics’ and ‘the rubber band patent’ have come up for review and been found wanting by the USPTO. The bad news is that Apple still has a vast portfolio of debatable patents to draw upon.

Patents are not a defence of the rights of the innovator, but a weapon against competition and invention and the rights of the user. Android is no more a ‘rip-off’ or ‘stolen product’ than the iPhone itself, or the music of Stravinsky or poetry of Eliot.