Apple came close to destroying its business in the late 1980s by pursuing a suit against Microsoft claiming that Windows infringed the look and feel of the Mac desktop metaphor. Apple focused its hopes and business future on this lawsuit, while its market share dwindled. Rather than competing, it litigated. And lost.
Last week, it litigated against Samsung over its iPhone design and won.
The first justifiable conclusion might be that big companies get their way. The second might reasonably be that Apple doesn’t change much: its business model remains aggressive self-righteousness. The third is what everybody knows: patent rules and philosophy are all screwed up.
As for the first point, Apple is not just a big company, but the biggest. And it is not just the biggest American company, but the most American company. It has entered a rarefied brand status in which it is now almost synonymous with American virtue: American as Apple. Its good design sense has become a major point of American pride, if not nationalism. The brand is a national asset. Apple is AT&T in its pre-break-up from; it’s GM, in its what’s-good-for-General-Motors-is-good-for-the-country stage; it’s United Fruit when it made US foreign policy; it’s Microsoft when desktop computing was transforming the world.
This is about as close to commercial omnipotence as it gets. Its unassailability, its right to be preternaturally aggressive, is built into its share price. We believe in Apple. So let us briefly consider the chance for a Korean company defending itself against (or, perish the thought, challenging) the greatest American company of the age in the eyes of an American jury.
And then, there’s the self-righteousness. Apple is one of the most aggressive intellectual property litigators of all time. Its major moves have not been about protecting precise technical innovations, but about claiming the much softer zone of look and feel. It sues for brand rather than engineering. It has pioneered a new modern sensibility: taste is what’s most valuable; identity is king. It’s sued about the lower case "i"; it’s sued about the word "pod"; it’s sued New York City over the "big Apple"; it’s sued over using the words "app store".