Is the Apple-HTC Lawsuit Good for Consumers?

Apple filed a lawsuit against Taiwanese mobile phone manufacturer HTC this week. The suit claims that some of HTC's devices infringe on patents used by Apple's iPhone. This is pretty notable, since HTC is a designer of several Android-based phones, including Google's Nexus One. Some think that the lawsuit could be bad for consumers because it seeks to stifle innovation, with Apple suing a company that makes some of the iPhone's biggest competitors. I see things differently.

One article that considers this question comes from Technologizer's David Worthington. The argument opposing the suit is that if Apple reinforces all of the patents related to the iPhone, then that would bar competitors from entering the market. Ultimately consumers would be worse-off, because innovation would be limited to whatever Apple creates, without having to worry about new creativity from competing phones.

But Worthington does note an alterative view from Richard Field, past chair of the American Bar Association's section of science and technology law:

"Apple is known for its creativity. If Apple cannot protect the creativity side of [the market] it also isn't good for consumers," Field said. When molded together, it could be argued that the patents are the essence of the Apple machine, he explained.

I think that's exactly right. The very reason why Apple was able to make the investment that led to the incredible innovation the iPhone brought is because the company could get patents to protect the profits that would result from the device. That's the whole point of patents in the first place.

Apple is something of a patent machine, which makes sense since it's a very creative company. Steve Jobs is even known to sometimes brag about some of the patents that the company gets. So it should come as no surprise that Apple would be eager to sue HTC, or any other company, if it believes those patents have been infringed upon.

So in terms of providing the motivation for the original creativity, these patents were definitely good for consumers. But critics of the HTC lawsuit appear to believe that some of these patents are for sufficiently generic aspects of the iPhone, without which other phones won't be able to enter the market. For a great analysis of the important patents in question, check out this piece by Nilay Patel at Engadget.

One such controversial patent is #7,657,849 for "Unlocking A Device By Performing Gestures On An Unlock Image." Here's the diagram:


If you have ever used an iPhone, then this function is pretty well known to you. You swipe the bottom of the touch screen to unlock the phone. Other mobile phone manufacturers would also like to be able to provide their phones with similar slick unlocking mechanisms. But using this as an example: is it necessary to provide other firms this function to keep innovation moving?

Not as far as I can see. You could just have a lock button on the side, like so many phones have done traditionally. This may be a step backwards, but it doesn't require that the broader innovation come to a grinding halt if employed. Moreover, you could argue that this patent could require ever greater innovation: engineers would just have to think up an even better way to unlock a phone. Perhaps the touch screen could sense its owner's fingerprint to unlock the phone, for example.

Without getting a bunch of hardware engineers, software designers and patent lawyers into a room, it's pretty hard to tell whether it would really be impossible for a manufacturer to produce competing multifunction mobile devices given all of the patents Apple has outstanding. If that's the case, then yes: the patents are bad for consumers. But I find it pretty hard to believe that could be the case. And if it is, then this is more a problem with the officials granting patents that are too generic to allow competition.

But if competing mobile phones can be still created, then Apple's patents should really only encourage even greater innovation. Designers now must think of new ways of doing things better than Apple. They aren't limited by Apple's patents, but by human imagination. And more creativity is always good for consumers.