For some weeks now my jacket pockets have been bulging in an unsightly manner as I have gone about the world with a BlackBerry Bold 9900, two HTC Android handsets, the “Rhyme” and the “Sensation XL with Beats Audio” and the all new Nokia Lumia 800 running Windows for Mobiles 7.5 “Mango”.
What’s the smartphone world up to at the moment? Well, mostly we have had to witness the sorry spectacle of patent suits and counter-suits between Samsung, HTC, Apple, Google, Nokia – in fact all the big players in the game, each of them shelling out huge sums in lawyers’ fees for cases where they are fighting each other or those creepy companies who have invented and given the world nothing but stealthily bought up patents over the years and now hope to rake in many tens of millions. By way of retaliation and to prevent more of this, a consortium consisting of some of the biggest beasts in the jungle – Apple, Microsoft and BlackBerry maker Research in Motion amongst others – paid four and half billion dollars for Nortel, while Google splashed out even more impressively, paying twelve and half billion for Motorola Mobility and its 17,000 patents. Yes, 17,000. How many patent lawyers charging how much an hour will it take to work through that portfolio? The mind boggles.
Do we remember any of this happening in the auto industry? Does whoever came up with the limited slip differential get a licence from every car that uses one? Or the inventor of fuel injection, the overhead camshaft or the wishbone chassis? Did it happen in the manufacture of radio and television sets? Maybe it did but we just didn’t know about it. To the outsider the current situation resembles nothing so much the bloodiest kind of shark feeding-frenzy.
Large corporations can at least look after themselves. The problem is that smaller, ever creepier parasitic corporations, “patent trolls”, have been currently making life hell for individual third-party app developers too, bombing them with Cease and Desist letters asserting that the app they have designed has used, probably in all innocence, some algorithm, routine or in-app purchasing technique that has been sneakily hoarded by the company – an algorithm, routine or technique that would certainly have been independently invented by hundreds of different app developers anyway. Earlier this year it seems that in the case of the most notorious of these companies, Lodsys, Apple stepped in on behalf of the developers
Well it’s not an area I have any expertise in, but it does leave a nasty taste in the mouth. Of course original creations and inventions should be protected, but as with the case of musical copyright I would argue (as I did here at the iTunes Festival in London in July 2009, the periods of greatest creativity have been those where weak copyright has prevailed. It is, to (mis)quote, the fencing master in Scaramouche, like holding a bird. Clutch too tight and you will crush it, too loose and – pah! – she will fly away.
Anyway, while all this goes on, the multi-billion dollar business of trying to get you to buy into a smartphone continues apace. There are, I’m sure I don’t need to remind you, four big players here. RIM, who make the BlackBerry that once dominated the business world almost entirely, Apple, whose iPhone utterly transformed the idea of what a smartphone could be, the Google Android Open Handset Alliance which was (cough) inspired by Apple to produce their own not strikingly dissimilar operating system and finally, last year, Microsoft, who threw their hat in the ring with Windows Mobile 7, now called just plain Windows Phone.
They all take apps, they all can play YouTube films, but only the Android devices have Adobe Flash – and most Androiders will try and avoid using it very much. Everything Apple said about it when Steve Jobs declared the iPhone would never carry it has turned out to be true and Adobe themselves have finally come to realise this and to accept the inevitability of HTML 5 constituting the proper way forward.