Apple Can’t Go Thermonuclear on Patents Without Fallout

“Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.” — Steve Jobs, Stanford Commencement, 2005.

Mushroom cloudApple is right to defend its intellectual property in court. For a long time, when Apple was a weaker company, other companies, worldwide, made a modest living by following Apple’s lead. Nowadays, Apple has the money, resources and patents to defend its inventions and deserves to profit, alone, from its creativity.

And yet.

Android, as a product, has shown a remarkable tenacity. The 21st century smartphone, as envisioned by Apple and copied by others, has proven to be extraordinarily profitable. No company with money and a great legal staff is going to walk away from the prospects. There’s just too much at stake in the future of smartphones.

And so we have to wonder what the downside is of Apple’s ongoing, perhaps, eternal legal battles. No endeavor of this magnitude can be without cost.

Despite the upfront value of Apple’s crusade, there is something to be said for not paying too much attention to the competition. One proponent of that is Seena Sharp. In November, 2010, long before the Apple v. Samsung suit went into high gear, Ms. Sharp wrote an essay at The Directive entitled “Competitors: Fuh’Get About ‘Em! How too much focus on your competition can throw your company off course”

Ms. Sharp’s thesis was:

Companies with too much focus on competitors tend to offer more of the same, while fiercely defending the differences that customers either don’t notice or don’t care about. Then they end up with a product or service that’s faster/bigger/cheaper, when what the customer wants may be something else…”

We’ve seen that before with other companies. When the goal is to crush the competition, product design is, in turn, driven by the competition. As Ms. Sharp explains, in dwelling on the competition, customers may no longer view your company as a leader, and that can, in turn, affect innovation. However, if the goal is to do something wonderful, then a company doesn’t dwell on the competition so much.

Of course, we currently see Apple as an innovator and a leader by virtue of the iPad and iPhone, products that were nurtured and brought to fruition by Steve Jobs. In one sense, however, Apple has been too successful. iOS, the iPhone and the iPad were breakthrough technologies and Apple’s intention is to dominate the marketplace by virtue of its inspiration and perspiration. That singular sensation has its dangers. After all, going “thermomuclear” also means fallout.

Danger Man

When you’re on top, and the whole world seems to be stealing your stuff, and you’re constantly at war, there is a human tendency, to be resisted, to focus only on profitable avenues. Tough questions are asked of any proposed project. Will it help the war effort by offering a leg up on the competition? Does it promote the brand? Will it be profitable? Will it help gain marketshare?

Any new idea that doesn’t meet these criteria might be deemed not critical enough to the war effort. That’s why, as Ms. Sharp explained, products tend to be the same. quoteSerious departures from the combative norm might be too risky. Failure gives the competition an opening.

One example of that is Microsoft’s Surface tablet. Microsoft’s obsession with Apple drove it, first, towards risk and innovation with Courier, but in the end, the company retreated into the comfortable, safe arms of Windows.

We see this manifestation in iOS and OS X. It’s safe to add more and more features because features are talking points. If you have more features than the competition, you are, presumably, better and more innovative than the competition. It’s also profitable to follow social fads in order to keep your products appealing, but following rather than leading can also back a company into a corner.

Finally, when it comes to the search for fundamental breakthroughs in everyday technologies, the Return on Investment (ROI) looks dubious in the face of heated competition. Apple’s email app is so ordinary, Tobias van Schneider has taken up the challenge to make things right. An inconvenient truth is that a very ordinary Safari hasn’t set the world on fire. Google seized the initiative with Google reader news feeds, something every iOS RSS reader now depends on.

Glory Road

The future holds some fabulous challenges for Apple. The pricing of the (rumored, but almost certain) 7.x-inch iPad will be critical, along with corresponding iPod touch positioning and pricing. The design and future of a top-of-the-line desktop, the Mac Pro, seems always in doubt. At some point, as Siri matures, Apple may have to think about iPads with larger (than 10-inch) displays, driven on the desktop by voice rather than OS X’s mice and trackpads. The (rumored) Apple HDTV project is fraught with traps set by the TV industry. Dramatic change suddenly looks very risky when your former friends and partners have become capable opponents on the battlefield and in court.

We think we’re seeing, from the best available information, that the iPhone 5 will have a larger display. If this is driven by customers, are those customers the same ones fascinated with the Android phone’s larger displays? Is a larger iPhone 5 display an Apple innovation or an obsession with the competition?

Apple remains the most innovative company in the world. Plus, Tim Cook said it himself, almost to the point of painful overemphasis. “Our North Star is to maniacally focus on making the world’s best products.” I like that. It’s a worthy goal to stick with.