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article imageOp-Ed: Apple vs. Android — Absurdity meets farce, at your expense

By Paul Wallis     Dec 19, 2011 in Technology
Sydney - Good news, folks. Fully lawyer-based technology is on the way! Not content with turning virtually every noun on Earth into litigation fodder, the Gods of Patents were sparring over the right to touch a screen.
The New York Times
A federal agency (the United States International Trade Commission) ruled on Monday that a set of important features commonly found in smartphones are protected by an Apple patent, a decision that could force changes in how Google’s Android phones function.
At the heart of the disputes are the kind of small but convenient features that would cause many people to complain if they were not in their smartphones. For example, the case decided Monday involves the technology that lets you tap your finger once on the touch screen to call a phone number that is written inside an e-mail or text message. It also involves the technology that allows you to schedule a calendar appointment, again with a single tap of the finger, for a date mentioned in an e-mail.
The Android/iPhone spat is business for Apple, Google and Androids distributors. It’s big business and it’s reasonable that Apple and Google would want to defend their products as best they can. But- There wasn’t really an issue at the “click this” level.
Since the first GUI, this has been given technology, a natural function of any sort of operating hardware using digital technology or even analogue technology. It’s about as disputable as the need for legs on a horse. The product would have no way of functioning if it couldn’t be clicked.
So the agency did the next best thing- it made life as difficult as possible for users-
The users will no longer get a menu giving them the choice to save the phone number in their contact lists, dial the number or send a text message to it. Instead, HTC said it would give them only the option of dialing the number.
So, meanwhile- Not just some, but every other type of cell phone on earth will record numbers, and make them accessible, and this solves a problem? You can go anywhere on Earth, buy any other kind of phone but an Android, keep your numbers, and Apple doesn’t have a problem with that? This is farce incarnate.
Meaning the result is a fully functional absurdity directed at one product. God alone knows how many different types of phone there are on the market. Even basic landlines can remember phone numbers. Even with two tin cans on a string, you’ll probably be at least able to get the person at the other end of the string. Just not with these Androids. Brilliant. Dazzling. A testimony to America’s finest legal minds. Whoopee. Do drop in anytime. Have a suppository. It’s equally tasteful and serves much the same purpose.
The patent involved was actually an Apple computer technology patent from 1996, pre- iPhone. Not to trivialize the value of intellectual property (IP) in any form, but touch screens aren’t exactly new. The original touch screen technology dates back at least 50 years, before Apple or Google even existed. With touch screens, you touch a surface and something happens. If this were a valid plaint, any type of touch screen, including tablets and Apple’s own iPads and iPods, would be subject to it.
The basic principle is:
User > screen > function.
The point is that from this perspective, nothing about touch screens is really proprietary technology. The systems and software are, but the screens and their functions aren’t. Software isn’t even in this particular equation, except (gasp) in the revolutionary idea of hitting a link. Whether you use a cursor or a finger, that’s also core technology, part of basic reality as far as the use of any type of hardware is involved.
So even historically, it’s not really an issue, but it’s litigation food for the ultra-catfight previously known as the tech industry. There is a problem with this situation, and it’s not quite as obvious as just bitching about other people’s IP.
There’s now a very good argument for declaring some basic IP for basic technological functions to be public domain. Not because it’s a fact, (perish the thought of facts entering into legal logic), but because if they don’t deem things like basic operations functions as public domain, it will be possible to wilfully obstruct new technology on the most specious grounds.
A light switch isn’t subject to IP litigation. Why should a click be? Because however you view touch screen IP, that’s basically what hitting a function is- a switch.
I’m all in favour of efficient copyright protection, in fact I did an article a while back called “Intellectual property- Copyscape for everything?” to highlight the need for a reliable, neutral, working way of evaluating the similarities of IP materials. That said, there remains a problem- There is a natural right to legal complaint about any IP issue, but there’s also a natural right of courts to determine if there actually is something to complain about. That role needs to be cranked up a few thousand revs, and it also needs inputs from truly independent IP experts to reduce the tides washing through the courts and the settlements process.
There’s a business angle here, too. This sort of endless legal argument recycling and simply changing the names of the subjects is bad for business, particularly the tech industry business. It creates more problems where there need to be far less. It’s expensive, (Guess who's paying- Every unit bought includes a measurable donation to lawyers) it’s time consuming, and in some cases it’s really based on targeting a defendant, not bona fide legal issues.
In this case the courts, in their own interests, should have a working mechanism to eliminate unnecessary claims. I’m not about to accuse Apple of a purely whimsical lawsuit. There may well have been an issue about technology at various other levels, and sometimes people just get things wrong. Fair enough.
After all, can people really judge the merits of their own case? If they could, we wouldn’t need courts at all. The courts, however, need to remember that’s the reason they exist and that good law ultimately serves the public interest as much as any interests between parties.
What’s gone completely missing in action here is both the public interest and the law. The agency didn’t even get around to acknowledging the market realities of why people like cell phones- They’re convenient, and you can access numbers easily. Not these Androids, not any more, and it’s all a result of litigation.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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