Is it time for Apple’s patent war to end?


In its fight with Android hardware-makers, Apple almost seems to see itself as a noble hero fighting a nefarious villain bent on stealing its identity and reputation. But just or not, is the fight one that makes sense for Apple from a practical and business standpoint?

That’s the question Bloomberg posed in a new article that polls patent experts on Apple’s ongoing patent disputes that seem to multiply on a daily basis. The answer they come up with is that Apple might be better off taking a less extreme approach, and I’m inclined to agree.

Especially in cases like the ITC import ban against HTC and Apple’s injunction against the Galaxy Tab 10.1 in Germany, 3LP Advisors LLC Managing Partner Kevin Rivette told Bloomberg that Apple is better off negotiating a settlement that would grant it some benefit in exchange for licensing its technology. Instead, Apple scores surface wins, but then the manufacturers on the losing end need only modify their design to get around the imposed restrictions.

The problem is that many of Apple’s patents focus on look, feel and design, which means they can be worked around, as in the cases mentioned above. As a result, Apple could have a hard time securing lasting, sticky restrictions that prevent its competitors’ products from being sold permanently in individual markets, let alone worldwide.

The better strategy, Rivette says, is to negotiate deals that allow Apple an inside look at competitor direction in exchange for the use of current tech. That way, Apple would be able to spot and benefit from any innovation made by others. As it is, Apple is basically forcing innovation on the part of others while doing nothing to ensure any net IP gains for itself.

Apple doesn’t have to give in, however. It has very deep pockets, and a solid armory of patents. Should it choose to, it can continue the war of attrition we’ve written about previously, in which it chips away at features and physical designs in an effort to undermine the overall consumer appeal of competing products.

But seeking to shut down the copycat competition through any means, as seems to have been Steve Jobs’ original intent in pursuing Samsung and others, doesn’t benefit Apple. Essentially, all it might really accomplish is a stagnated mobile industry, with Android spinning its wheels in cosmetic and minor changes to avoid Apple’s patent lockdowns, and Apple staying just ahead of the competition with no real impetus to achieve big, sweeping innovations.

Apple’s war on Android seems to have been Jobs’ preferred course when it came to dealing with Google’s supposed IP theft, but going after Microsoft for committing basically the same sin with regards to Mac OS was never such a sustained and concerted effort. And I’d say that given where we are today, that worked out for the better: forced to compete outside of the realm of the PC, Apple came up with the iPod and became a driving force of mobile innovation, plus its Mac division still outpaces the PC industry by a considerable margin in terms of growth. With that in mind, isn’t it time Apple thought about calling off the dogs and instead settled in to a prolonged, productive armistice?

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