I've been trying to figure out, for the past month or so, what is so fabulous about Android as an operating system. I'm basically convinced that the answer is, Google created it and Google can do no evil. But outside of the basic open way in which Google has licensed it's mobile OS presumeably (I must presume due to the nature and tone of the general complaints of Android developers) it's just another operating system.
We in the US have a patent office that essentially supports the actions of unsavory characters known as 'patent trolls'. Whey they do is buy up relatively simple ideas and then trade and sue in a contentious marketplace.
I'm going to have to give automobile analogies to expose my bias and illustrate what I think is going on.
We have a nation of tens of millions of people with the surplus income to buy a new generation of electronic devices that do somewhat interesting things. And we have hundreds of thousands of developers who stake their careers on coming up with new interesting things to put into these devices. These developers work, by and large, from the designs set forth by a small handful of companies you could conceivably call The Big Three. The analogy is an eager public who can buy cars, and hundreds fo thousands of mechanics and well, three big automakers. The King today is Apple, and Apple just invented a new kind of luxury car that has power windows, power brakes, moving seats, automatic transmission and crazy styled fins on the rear. It turns out that the difference between windows that crank and power windows is a patenable idea, even though any one of those hundreds of thousands of mechanics could build power windows from scratch.
Well, in this environment where you can patent not only power windows but the style of the buttons on the power windows and the color of the felt in the door that wipes the windows as they move up and down, Apple is making all the legal hay it can make over the fact that others of the big three have decided to make luxury cars as well. And guess what, all these copycat luxury cars have power windows, power brakes, power seats, automatic transmissions and fins.
The reason all this matters is that Apple's luxury car was originally considered overpriced. All those mechanics laughed when they heard the luxury car was in the works, and they laughed when it came out. Nokia, they said, was the industry genius when it came to phones. Nobody will pay for all that stupid luxury. Well they predicted wrong, and this new category of luxury car became very profitable. It didnt' do much more - it just made simple things everybody already had on their cars easier to do.
But then, seeing the success, they did the same thing, and they called it innovation even though the design of power window buttons is not really innovative and most anybody can design one.
The complaint of Android developers and the failure of Samsung to defend its own 'innovation' is that now Apple will have a virtual monopoly on the market they created - of high priced premium designed luxury smartphones and tablets. The irony is that those thousands of mechanics can't really think of a new way to use the Android operating system, or can they? Is it just Samsung?
The Amazon Kindle uses (last time I checked) the Android operating system. If Apple decides to go to war against Amazon, matters will really heat up. But what I read into today's decision is that the patent infringment charges were very specific on a product by product basis. In other words, there were plenty of products using Android that were not infringing.
From my point of view, it seems completely right and proper that developers should complain about any legal and regulatory constraints that lead to monopoly. But there are two qualifiactions on that. The first is whether or not these 'innovations' are really that. You see if somebody patents a power window button, what's to stop you from making a power window lever, or drawstring, or voice control, or dial? It is ultimately a matter of superior or inferior design and if Apple has the exclusive rights to the superior design, then how can they be wrong? So I find it hard to buy the idea that Apple's defense of rights stifles innovation.
The second qualification is whether or not the thousands of developers who voice this complaint are actually capable of building something materially different. To use the automobile analogy again, all of the mechanics are complaining that the patents for piston rings cost them money and stifle innovation. But that's only because they are thinking about the market leading engine technology. Rotary engines, the kind used in Mazdas don't use pistons or piston rings at all. If you were truly innovative, you'd put your own engine out there. But most mechanics are incapable of building engines from scratch, they need prior designs.
At some point in the future, the market is going to show that the marginal value of Apple's luxury products is minimal. As it stands, Apple's strategy strands their own products into the bargain bin a mere three years out. Apple's strength is that they deliver their innovations to the market like movie studios deliver summer blockbusters. And those blockbusters and their sequels deliver the big profits up front, and then dwindle in value over time. The complainers want the big summer movie audience. Whoops, two analogies.
There's something else here too, and this to me is the more important thing. That is that I smell a sense of entitlement in the air. The basic theory underlying all digital computing is that any one 'Turing complete machine' can emulate the exact same functions of any other 'Turing complete machine'. Which is saying that any computer can compute anything any other computer can compute. The possibilities are limitless, but the market opportunity is not.
I believe that there are programmers right now at JPL or CERN, scientific programmers, who could build systems of increible beauty, capability and longevity. But instead they choose to serve other purposes than consumer markets. The idea that such programmers are limited by the decision against Samsung today strikes me as preposterous. To make a third analogy, what we have seen is the vindication of the Big Mac. Nobody else can use three slices of bread with sesame seeds and the same special sauce. The hamburger market has patented the sliced pickle, and it's really a shame that pickles and sesame seeds can be patented, but people do eat more than hamburgers. And maybe these wannabe market leaders ought to learn to cook something different, really different for a change.