By Harry McCracken | Wednesday, March 3, 2010 at 2:43 pm
I promise I’ll stop talking about Apple’s suit against smartphone rival HTC until further developments warrant. But the more I think about it, the more I’m struck by the parallels to Apple’s 1988 suit against Microsoft and HP over Windows and HP’s New Wave interface.
Here’s a good story over at Low End Mac on the case, as well as Apple’s earlier threats to take Microsoft to court and the agreement between the two companies that postponed the courtroom battle for a few years. In the 1988 case, the role of the iPhone was played, of course, by the Mac. And Android phones like the models mentioned in Apple’s filing are played by Windows PCs.
(Actually, the parallels between Windows a couple of decades ago and Android right now are uncanny: Windows was nowhere near as slick and well-designed as the Mac, but it was good enough that Microsoft’s licensing strategy paid off hugely. Android is nowhere near as slick and well-designed as the iPhone, but it’s good enough that Google’s licensing strategy seems to be on the cusp of paying off hugely.)
What was the upshot of the 1988 lawsuit? Apple spent four years and a lot of money on the case, and ultimately lost it. During that time, the Mac platform didn’t evolve all that much and Microsoft came up with Windows 3.0 and 3.1, the first two versions that weren’t crude jokes. In retrospect, it’s pretty hard to argue in retrospect that Apple shouldn’t have gritted its teeth and tried its damndest to beat Microsoft through technical innovation and smart marketing tactics, not before a judge.
The two situations have plenty of differences. For one thing, in 1988 Microsoft’s DOS dominated the computer market and it wasn’t entirely clear that Windows would catch on. Apple circa 2010 is a far more powerful company than Apple circa 1988, and the iPhone platform is in way better shape than the Mac was. The 1988 case involved copyright; the current one is over patents.
And who knows? Maybe there’s some alternate universe in which Apple won the 1988 case, Microsoft was forced to cripple Windows, and the two companies ended up in very different places.
So here’s the grim and dystopian scenario, and it’s grim and dystopian for Apple, not for HTC or Google: A few years from now, maybe this new case will end up looking as ill-advised as the 1988 one. Maybe Android, despite being a principal target of Apple’s wrath, will end up on most of the smartphones in the world that aren’t made by Apple–but won’t ever catch up with the iPhone in terms of general polish. Maybe people will see the iPhone as a breakthrough that lost ground to a less inventive but more pervasive competitor.
I hope not. And as we watch Apple and Google, we should be able to get a good sense of where things are going a long time before the legal wrangling ends…