I don’t usually comment on front page news because you’ve already heard it everywhere else, but… Well, today’s judgment in the Apple/Samsung patent trial may very well have far-reaching, potentially devastating effects on all of the gadgets we love.
We have come a long way from when Microsoft successfully defended itself against Apple regarding the UI aspects of Windows versus Mac OS. Over the past several years pundits, analysts, and bloggers have warned of the troubled state of the United States patent system. The drastically increased numbers of patent application have led to the seemingly overwhelmed organization issuing legal patents for vague concepts as opposed to actual inventions. Formerly un-patentable items, such as Apple’s “bounce back” scrolling, have been issued without so much as a second thought. Some analysts hypothesized that the patent system would simply issue patents for anything and the court system would determine the validity of said claims. This concept would fail in a spectacular fashion when Microsoft was able to shake down every manufacturer of a device loaded with the Android operating system. Today, the trend continues as Apple put the screws to one of it’s major competitors in the smartphone and tablet market.
After months of public and courtroom mudslinging, a jury (most likely not consisting of patent lawyers), have passed judgment in favor of Apple over Samsung. Samsung is to “reimburse” Apple $1.051 billion for copying Apple’s patented designs for such mundane user interface features as scrolling, zooming, and navigation.
We still have what is sure to be a lengthy appeals process to sit through, but let’s just think about what this judgment could mean if it sticks. Any device created in the future will have to create an entirely new user interface or risk being shut down by a megacorporation. Every aspect of a UI is now a potential target for litigation. Close window icon look like an “X”? Sued. Box in a rectangle scroll bars? Sued. A button that opens a vertical list of other buttons? Oh, you better believe that’ll be sued. The only way a startup or new invention could safely use a visual control interface at all would be to create it entirely from scratch while bearing no resemblance to any other UI motif in existence. Or pay Apple/Microsoft a stipend to license such basic visual concepts as “groups of icons in a box”. Want to use windows, buttons, icons, or menus? Pay up or else. You think the learning curve of your last phone was steep? Wait until no two cell phone brands look the same. Today every corporate and independent software designer with a product in the United States has become a target for litigation. And you better believe Microsoft is coming for you after this verdict.
Welcome to the death of innovation. Welcome to the age of the megacorp.