About Me

When not at work with students, I spend my time in my room either reading, calculating something using pen and paper, or using a computer. I read almost anything: from the pornographic to the profound, although my main interests are mathematics and physics. "When I get a little money I buy books; and if any is left I buy food and clothes." -Erasmus

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Apple as the New Big Bad Guy?

I recently read an article (reposted on Facebook by a friend) entitled "Apple to Make Billions on Google's Android" and I'm troubled at the way Apple is vigorously pursuing litigation all over the planet.

Consider what Apple is doing to other smartphone makers (such as Samsung),  and developers of smartphone operating systems (such as Google). What it ultimately amounts to, I think, is the stifling of competition and innovation. Although swipe to unlock is a clever solution, does it really make sense to patent it? Or proximity detectors, so that the phone doesn't get mixed instructions when your face is near the touchscreen?

Probably my biggest gripe is the Apple patent on the use of a touchscreen.  When you look at how the patent is written, it covers almost everything we want to do on a smartphone or tablet with a touchscreen display. It looks like Apple wants to be the only one to make touchscreen devices, or get all the royalties for touchscreens. (Remember the way Apple fans have been painting IBM and Microsoft in the past? Ironic, isn't it?)

At issue, of course, is what exactly is patentable, and how long patent protection should last.

The idea behind patents is to give inventors some time to get some return on their effort, and not to give a permanent monopoly. For example, medicine is patented and the discoverer has the right to restrict who can manufacture a drug so that the money spent on research and clinical trials will be recovered, and some profit is made as a reward for taking the risk of developing new technology.

The years of protection allotted to inventors (20 years) reflect a different age, when there weren't that many people, and the rate of advancement of technology was slow. When consumer devices last only for two to three years, the number of consumers much much larger (7 Billion?) , and product development cycles much shorter, the old twenty year lifespan doesn't seem to make much sense anymore. I think copyright and patent law during our times needs an overhaul.

Given the stakes, I'll be keeping an eye on how the patent battles play out. And I do plan not to buy Apple.


Tim said...

Please just Google 'math you can't use', if you haven't. I'm a professional member of ACM, an associate member of the FSF and a moderator on Stack Overflow.

Software patents not only stifle innovation, they also result in mob like 'pay for protection if you want to use this algorithm', which millions of engineers might write at any given moment. And it's not just algorithmic, a 'method of' doing something abstract without any implementation or sales is easy to get.

Add to cart, anyone? :) Compare a sorted linked list? Yep, that's patented, depending on what you're doing. The US patent system is horribly broken, and unfortunately it's being reciprocated.

Mike said...

I've looked at "Math You Can't Use" after I saw your comment, and I'm still having trouble wrapping my brain around the issues involved. And there are many: I was unpleasantly surprised, for example, to learn that there are corporations (such as Acacia Research Corporation) that exist only for patent trolling.

What also caught my attention was the difference between trade secrets and patents, but I'm not sure how secure a trade secret (in the software industry) can be. So patents are likely to stay, maybe in a weaker form.

Although I hope a sensible alternative to the current patent system can be worked out, it's going to be up to lawmakers. Unfortunately, they haven't shown much savvy when it comes to technology issues.

Tim said...

Note also that 'music derived from DNA' has also been patented. The problem is, you can describe some theoretical method of doing something, supported by some set of theoretical results, and you get a patent. After Einstein, patent examiners just went completely down hill.

There are some reforms, as many ethical companies declare their patent 'portfolio' as defensive, just in case a giant is intent on squashing them. And then there are companies that exist to purchase seemingly obscure patents for the purposes of litigation and profit. What you have discovered is a battle that has gone on for over a decade. In other words, patent 'trolls'.

Perhaps one day we'll enjoy a cup of (insert hot beverage) and have some fun talking about this.

It is, in fact an egregious problem that is far from being solved.