You’re a parent looking over two unruly children. They are both large for their age and tend to push around the other kids on the playground with little regard for physical or emotional harm. The two children constantly bicker, extort each other for prominence and make broad exaggerated claims about what is rightfully theirs before attacking each other with claws and teeth, rolling around in the sand and fallen leaves, screaming bloody murder.
When you separate the two, they will both claim moral high ground and that the other is just an abusive bully that’s been stealing from the other for years. Between the two, they dominate the playground, creating an atmosphere where the other kids don’t get any attention and struggle to be heard. What do you do with these children?
These two children are named Apple and Samsung.
The battle is an ongoing curiosity to the rest of the technology industry, but the only tangible effect to be found in this latest standoff between the two corporate giants is pride and profit. Samsung Galaxy smartphones and tablets will continue to be made, as will iPhones and iPads.
Sitting in the corner, carefully watching and ready to step in, is big brother Google, looking to protect its own interests.
New Patent Trial Pitting The Galaxy Against The iPhone
Today, Apple and Samsung begin another round of a tired story: a court trial where Apple is suing Samsung over patents found in smartphones. Apple has five software patents it claims Samsung to be infringing, while Samsung has a countersuit alleging Apple violated two of its own patents. The devices involved in the suit were released in 2012 and include the immensely popular Samsung Galaxy S3 and iPhone 5.
Apple is asking for a settlement that would include $40 per device that Samsung sold, which could total about $2 billion. In an almost comical twist (and a game of legal maneuvering), Samsung is only asking for about $7 million from Apple. The jury trial will be officiated by Judge Lucy Koh in the U.S. District Court of North California in San Jose.
Of course, we have already been down this road. Apple and Samsung had a patent battle in 2012 in the same U.S. court where a jury awarded Apple a $1.2 billion settlement. A Samsung appeal trimmed that settlement by about $450 million before a jury retrial added $230 million or so back to the settlement. As it stands now, Samsung owes Apple about $930 million (and is still appealing).
The Patents In Question
Apple has five patents on the line this time around, all of which fall into the “utility” category. This means the patents involve software that helps users navigate their smartphones and tablets. But this time, Apple will not use “design” patents (the general look of a device) as it has against Samsung in the past.
Included in these patents is the ‘647 “data tapping” patent that has become Apple’s biggest stick against rival smartphone manufacturers. The ‘647 patent controls the ability to put a link on a screen and click (or tap) it to access other information. For instance, if there is a calendar invite in your email, you could click on it to take you to your calendar app to schedule a meeting.
The ‘647 patent was awarded in 1996, before Steve Jobs came back to Apple and brought the NeXT operating system with him that begat Mac OS X and influenced iOS, the software for the iPhone and iPad. The patent is so broad and ill-defined that Apple has been able to successfully use it against the likes of HTC in past court cases—and win.
The other four patents include the ‘721 “slide-to-unlock” software, which Apple uses to activate the home screen on iOS devices; the ‘959 patent for universal search that Apple uses in Siri; the ‘414 patent that describes background syncing of data; and the ‘172 patent that covers predictive text for when a user starts typing a word on a smartphone or tablet.
Samsung’s patents named in the countersuit include features that speed up Wi-Fi and data connections.
The knock against Apple in this case is that they are putting a huge amount of weight on five patents that have, for the most part, been worked around at this point by the likes of Google (which is the primary contributor to the Android operating system that runs Galaxy devices) and manufacturers. Most smartphones these days have upwards of 200,000 patents that touch the technology inside, yet Apple thinks these five patents are so critical to its success that Samsung owes it billions of dollars. The farcical twist in Samsung’s $7 million damages request is to prove that any single individual patent has so little to do with the overall functioning of a smartphone that Apple’s request is an insult.
While the trial is ostensibly between Apple and Samsung, this particular suit touches closer to the heart of Android—and therefore Google—than previous suits.
The Proxy War On Google & Android
Except for the imbroglio between Google and Oracle over the use of Java in Android in 2012, no companies have really brought Google to trial over patents and software in Android. Yes, the Rockstar Consortium has filed patents against Google and several Android manufacturers, but the case is a bit dubious and has yet to go to trial.
Samsung’s primary defense this time around is to say that four of the five patents (outside of the slide-to-unlock patent) are part of the Android OS. The potential witness list features Google employees, including Android founder and former head Andy Rubin. Samsung will rely on Google to get it through one more patent trial against Apple with the hope that this will be the last time Apple comes with its lawyers.
Should Consumers Or Developers Be Concerned?
The fact of the matter about this case (and other patent battles like it) is that the people these devices touch—consumers, businesses and developers—are not really going to be affected. The devices mentioned in this case are two years old, even though the Samsung Galaxy S3 still maintains a healthy secondary market while Apple stopped shipping the iPhone 5.
In the last court case, Apple was unable to secure injunctions against the import of infringing devices, which means it’s highly unlikely that Samsung would face a ban of Galaxy devices should it lose this suit.
If Apple loses on all counts, it will limit its ability to wage war with its five primary patent weapons, including its dangerous, opaque and ubiquitous ‘647 patent. If Samsung loses, it will once again fork over a chunk of money to Apple. Either way, this case will go through several rounds of appeals and no tangible effect will be felt in the ecosystem until long after these devices are off the market.
Google and other Android manufacturers could stand to lose if Apple is successful, but it should be noted that the five patents in the case are able to be worked around. Android Linkify is one way that Google has avoided the ‘647 patent in the past, for instance.
In the end, the mud, sand, fallen leaves, bruises and scratches will go to the reputations of Apple, Samsung and the U.S. patent system, which has long allowed for software patents that are so broad and ill-defined that it’s hard to see what it actually governs.