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Apple notches a victory in escalating global patent war

Molly Wood Dec 21, 2011

There’s a war going on all around the world right now. It’s not being fought in the air or on the battlefield. It’s in courtrooms all over the planet and it all has to do with the type of phone you might have in your pocket right now.

The International Trade Commission ruled that HTC did violate one of Apple’s patents when building smartphones that run on Google’s Android operating system. The patent violation has to do with when you open an email and see a phone number or address appear in linkable format so you can touch and call the number or find the location on a map app. HTC will have to stop selling phones that do that in that way after April of next year. Between now and then, of course, it’s likely that HTC or Google or both will come up with new ways of providing that functionality through a different mechanism. The short-term upshot for you: your Android phone will probably act a little different by April. Big deal, right?

Well, yes and no. That one little trick on the phone is just one trick on a phone. But it’s also the first time Apple has forced a competitor to change what it’s making in order to sell it in the United States. The case is just one battle in a greater war. In cases from Australia to Europe, Apple has been the plaintiff (and occasionally the defendant) in numerous patent infringement lawsuits against HTC, Samsung and other companies that make devices that run Android. Despite the fashionable name of the iPhone, Android is the dominant operating system for mobile right now and Apple’s stated beef is that Android gadgets are way too similar to what Apple has already made with the iPhone and the iPad. “Apple’s basic story in most of these cases is very simple and very attractive,” says Doug Lichtman, a professor at UCLA Law School. “They say, the other guy copied me. They put the Galaxy tab down next to iPad, and they say your honor, nothing fancy here, no experts, no lawyers, just look at the two devices. Samsung slavishly copied, you gotta stop them.”

To that end, Apple and its foes are all employing vast armies of lawyers to fight these cases out in court. It’s a war Apple is happy to fight. “Apple in the end can win more of these than anyone else,” says Lichtman, “and they’ll ultimately trade that for peace, and peace will be Android phones looking different.”

Of course, you and I are paying those lawyers every time we buy a new phone or tablet or computer. Lichtman says he expects prices for electronics to rise in order to pay all these legal fees. And if the companies are concentrating on courtrooms, he says, that’s taking them out of the product development lab: “The patent system is distracting all these companies from doing what we want them to do, which is to genuinely innovate. We’re fighting over all little things. I don’t care how much you like this feature where your email lets you push the phone number and dial automatically, that’s not curing cancer. This isn’t what the patent system was supposed to do. We need fewer patents focusing people on much more important innovations.”

Also in this program, I hate to sound like a caricature of a news program but we as a society are getting less happy. How do we know this? Scientists! How do they know it? Twitter! Peter Dodds is part of a team of scientists at the University of Vermont that combed through millions of tweets over the past three years looking for recurrences of words associated with positive or negative feelings. “Simply counting swear words actually turns out to match very well with the more complicated version of measuring happiness,” says Dodds. “So if you look at the time of day for example, you see that happiness goes down from about 7 a.m. to midnight. At the same time, swearing goes up through the day as well. I think we wake up neutral mood and then we lose the plot a little bit. I call it the daily unraveling of the human mind. So, we need a reset and maybe that’s what sleep is for.”

Also, YouTube has announced an absolutely garish number: a trillion. That’s the number of YouTube videos viewed in the past calendar year. That’s 140 YouTube viewing sessions for every human on earth. That’s twice the number of stars in the Milky Way. That’s a lot.

And what was the most viewed YouTube video this year? This physics lecture from MIT on angular momentum:

(Sigh) Just kidding. It was Rebecca Black’s “Friday.”

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