As I’ve often said, when Andy Ihnatko talks about Apple or the technology industry in general, I’m listening. Unlike so many so-called “journalists” or “pundits” who have earned neither of those designations, Ihnatko speaks without hidden agendas. He isn’t there to tell you how to think. He’s there to call your attention to things you might be wanting to think about, and to make sure you have enough info to consider them intelligently. The fact that he can do so while still being one of the most entertaining writers around is a bonus.
So when Ihnatko offers guidance about what the verdict in Samsung vs. Apple could mean for the future of the phone & tablet market, it is good idea for you (and me) to know that.
If you haven’t read the Ihnatko piece yet… well, what the heck are you doing listening to me first? Click on the link above and hear his first reaction to the verdict. I have, and while I have to — reluctantly — agree with much of it in the short term, I think the long term effect will be quite different.
Ihnatko says “If the decision stands, it’ll make it far, far more difficult, expensive, and risky to be a company that designs phones and tablets.” I think he’s right as far as that goes. He also says “If the verdict stands, then the costs of the judgment will be reflected in the cost of mobile devices. Furthermore, other manufacturers will feel the need to buy Apple’s official permission to build useful phones, passing down the possible $20-per-handset fee.” He’s right about that, too. Anyone who buys a non-Apple smartphone is going to pay more for it.
Where I don’t agree is with this: “The biggest losers here are consumers.” And with this: “Friday’s verdict doesn’t feel like justice. It feels like the day when Apple lost a hunk of its public persona as sweet hippies motivated by excellence and freedom, who win by making the best products.”
Consumers will take a hit, assuredly, in the short term. But they were already being short-changed by an industry that would very much like to return to the pre-iPhone days. In those days everyone took the easy route and made phones that satisfied the industry as a way to milk their customers endlessly with virtually no real use of technology to improve their customer’s experience. Consumers hated their phones, but since everyone was making essentially the same thing, no one cared about what consumers wanted, let alone about what they needed but didn’t know was something they could ask to have.
Apple changed that by making the first real improvements in the cell phone experience in years. They spent a lot of money to do it. More importantly, a lot of good people who took pride in their work and their visions spent long days and nights away from their families and their other pursuits. They were motivated by more than money. They were motivated by pride and by a personal vision they shared with Steve Jobs and the rest of their Apple colleagues.
I’m no Pollyanna. Money drives Apple. It must — they have stockholders who are never satisfied, no matter how good the company’s growth and performance. But what made Apple different was a constant belief that vision attracted money, rather than money being something that could buy vision. Time has proven them right.
Even so, Steve Jobs was more than once bitterly disappointed by people who thought the process of creation could be furthered with a shortcut, taking the vision of someone else and using it without doing the work and putting in the thought — instead just pretending you understood what it meant. Microsoft did that with Windows, Google did that with Android. Jobs never understood this mindset, and never forgave it.
Where someone sees a vision, embraces it, is inspired by it, and wants to be a part of it, you get innovation on top of innovation. When someone copies the trappings of a vision just to say “Me, too!” in hopes of profitting from the spread of that vision and without really sharing it or understanding it — that does not promote growth or innovation or anything other than stagnation. It takes bread out of the mouths of the real innovators without contributing anything.
Google was slavishly copying Blackberry with their early work on a Google phone, even though Blackberry had long since gone stagnant. Later, Google took advantage of their open partnership with Apple to switch gears and do the same to them when it became clear that people were responding to Apple’s direction. Again, they largely did this with no direction or vision of their own except a desire to have the same level of success as Apple without really knowing how to get there.
The Samsung case shows the end result of that kind of “innovation”. The evidence gathered undisputedly showed that Samsung was happy to offer customers no more than the same old crap that allowed the wireless companies that were their only really valued “customers” to bleed consumers without caring about improving their lot. When Apple outsold them in droves, giving those coinsumers a new alternative, they looked at their products in comparison and, rather than working to make their products better for the consumer, they deliberately chose to take the easy way by just copying Apple’s look without understanding the philosophy behind it in the least.
Samsung’s own documents conclusively show their mindset. “We can see our products are perceived as being less desirable than Apple’s products. We don’t know why (and don’t care to really make the effort to determine why) Apple’s work is superior. So we will set out to just make our products more like Apple’s products to siphon off some of their success.” Steve Jobs was fed up with that kind of thinking. Samsung hoped that Jobs’ death would find Tim Cook more willing to accept this. They were wrong.
The Apple v Samsung verdict will cripple the “smartphone” industry only because so much of that “industry” only consists of companies trying to make a fast buck copying what Apple accomplished. As soon as some company combines real vision with a willingness to embrace risk in the pursuit of a move forward, it may be Apple that finds itself needing to catch up. I look forward to that day, but it isn’t likely to come soon. Inertia paralyzed the phone industry for years, and for the most part contines to do so.
If the Apple v Samsung verdict has a chilling effect on “copycat innovation”, the consumer will take a hit in the short term but in the long view it will promote real innovation by forcing companies to actually attempt to seek better ways to serve their customers instead of just trailing along behind the crowd without knowing why. Technology companies and the public are better served by anticipating what customers will want tomorrow and using technology to fill needs that the public does not yet know they have — as Apple has done.
Apple v Samsung’s legacy may be to force a “smartphone” industry hat rose on the backs of first Blackberry, then Apple, to stop tweaking the smartphone and start designing the devices that will supplant it. If they can do a better job of that than Apple itself, great! Sooner or later, someone will. But they won’t do it while whining about Apple suppressing their “rights” to share the success that the whiners didn’t earn.