Why Samsung's Latest Victory In Its Patent War With Apple Is Mostly Meaningless

Samsung has won another victory in its long-running patent war with Apple. A new judgement bars Apple from importing certain last-generation iPads and iPhones to the United States. The win, however, is unlikely to amount to much more than a moral victory - while serving to highlight how meaningless these courtroom skirmishes are to a smartphone market that the two technology giants continue to dominate.  
 
The International Trade Commission said Tuesday that AT&T versions of Apple's iPhone 3GS and 4, and 3G-equipped models of iPad and iPad 2, infringe on a Samsung patent covering cellular technology. The ITC issued a limited order barring those devices from being sold in the U.S. Apple has already said it plans to appeal the decision, which it can do via the federal courts or a direct appeal to the White House. 

No Impact At All

Apple spokeswoman Kristin Huguet summed things up in a statement to AllThingsD, saying, "Today's decision has no impact on the availability of Apple products in the United States." Samsung spokesperson Adam Yates countered with a statement that included this gem: “We believe the ITC’s Final Determination has confirmed Apple’s history of free-riding on Samsung’s technological innovations.” 
 
For the uninitiated, that "history" dates back to Apple's original claims from April 2011 that Samsung's early Galaxy and Nexus smartphones "slavishly" copied the iPhone's design. The original court complaint famously includes side-by-side comparisons of Apple's iPhone 3GS and Samsung's Galaxy S (i9000). That history includes a $1.05 billion judgement against Samsung, awarded to Apple last August by a California patent court. And that history also includes a UK court ordering Apple to publicly apologize to Samsung for patent infringement accusations by running announcements in newspapers and online. 
 
Just as a ban on devices that account for little of Apple's current business won't change anything, neither did the "I'm Sorry," newspaper ads nor the $1 billion judgement Samsung is still appealing. The so-called consequences levied by courts and trade commissions have done nothing but chew up legal-system resources, give the media something to write about and keep both companies' legal teams busy.

When Giants Battle, The Little Guy Loses

Apple and Samsung continue to own the lion's share of the U.S. smartphone market. ComScore says Apple still owns the #1 spot, while Canaccord Genuity claims Samsung is now on top. Either way, the two dominate the rest of the field whether you measure by marketshare or profits. The patent wars don't seem to be hurting either company's businesses. 
 
HTC, on the other hand, has seen its business crumble while fighting off an Apple patent suit. Despite shipping two of the best smartphones in the world over the past 18 months - last year's One X and the current flagship One - HTC has been bleeding money and hemorrhaging executives. HTC's profits for the first quarter of 2013 tumbled 98% from the same period last year.
 
 
The company's woes are due as much to branding misfires (gone is last year's "Quietly Brilliant" slogan) and a lack of financial muscle to compete with Apple and Samsung's marketing departments. But getting caught in Apple legal's crosshairs certainly didn't help.

Executive Order To End Patent Wars?

The Apple-Samsung spat is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to technology industry patent issues, in the U.S. and internationally. Tuesday the Obama administration issued a list of recommended Executive and Legislative Actions to reform the high-tech patent system, and The Verge quotes sources claiming that the timing of the ITC's Apple import ban was "motivated in part by the Obama Administration’s new patent announcements."
 
Reaction to President Obama's recommendations from the tech community has been mixed at best. Perhaps that's because patent-related issues have become an annoying thorn in the side of a community that thrives on lightning-paced innovation.
 
 
Patent trolls are just that, trolls. And despite their protestations, it seems clear that the big-name patent wars have become a little more than an expensive sideshow leeching the lifeblood out of industry while doing little to actually protect inventors. Apple, Samsung and the rest are spending billions of dollars and untold hours fighting in courtrooms and arguing over newspaper apologies. Wouldn't those resources be better directed towards innovation?
 
Image by Renato Mitra from Obergösgen, Switzerland (iPhone 3G S 32GB, schwarz) [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.