Mar 062010

This Time It’s Personal
Steve Jobs was not leading Apple when the company lost the infamous “Look and Feel” lawsuit waged against Microsoft. Based on the existence of an ill-advised licensing agreement struck by then-CEO John Sculley, the courts ostensibly  gift-wrapped the Macintosh UI for Microsoft to pillage. When you listen to Jobs talk about the loss, he absolutely seethes. All of the marketing about Apple’s role as the innovator that Microsoft copies stems from something that was entirely out of Steve’s control.  It was much worse than if Jobs himself had lost the Mac’s GUI. But he didn’t. The person he personally recruited to put a Mac in every household – the person who ultimately betrayed him gave it away. This theft may not be all there is to Apple’s assault, but it’s definitely present. Consider the phalanx of patents cited, the unannounced nature of the attack (according to HTC) and Jobs’ own words about the lawsuit: they all suggest some of this came from a place that wanted to avenge a loss – and prevent another. To some, the “belligerent-feeling” nature of the suit is enough to detract from its virtue. It feels “evil“, “bullying” or “unnecessary“. The core of this sentiment, made by some of the smarter people on the tubes, is that this kind of whack-a-moling inhibits innovation, which leads me to my next point.

Apple is not Microsoft
Apple is not motivated by market share, earnings per share or number of markets entered. Apple’s motivation begins and ends with the design of excellent user experiences. The perception that Apple will get to a place in the industry where it stops innovating, sits on its cash cows and perpetuates its existence by bludgeoning more dextrous upstarts with its patent portfolio is simply never going to happen, at least not while Jobs is alive. Jobs relentlessly whips the crop at Apple, pushing innovation like WiFi, Firewire and DisplayPort to the point where comfortable technologies like floppy disks, serial connections and removable media drives are phased out with pundit (and occasionally fanboy)-wrankling regularity. Apple outpaces any other computer or consumer electronics maker in terms of version hustle. Anyone who believes that Apple is capable of laying off the gas at the expense of bleeding-edge innovation does not know the company.

Which, as usual, focuses the discussion not on the playa, but the game. The patent system is busted, but it’s the only game in town. If you’re in the computer business, if you’re not playing, you’re losing. This isn’t a case of Apple vaguely threatening *nix users with unspecified patents in an attempt to ward of people from using open-source OSs (*cough* Microsoft *cough*) or Apple trying to leech innovation and cash from competitors (*cough* Nokia *cough*). Jobs said “We’re not in the technology-licensing business”, which is different than “We’ve always been shameless about stealing great ideas”. If you listen to how Jobs describes what his company is about, you’d have no trouble understanding why Apple is defending its IP. That doesn’t stop pundits from slapping other companies’ motivations on the things Apple does, but then again, without drama, there are no pageviews.

In the 1990’s Jobs had to watch from the shore as his rudderless ship was boarded, plundered and almost sent to the bottom of the ocean. Regardless about how you feel about the means or the intent, he sure as hell isn’t going to let it happen again – not on his watch.

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