In recent months, Apple and Samsung have been clobbering one another in court rooms around the world. Some highlights: an important August victory in U.S. courts for Apple; a separate decision soon thereafter in Japan favouring Samsung; the subsequent dismissal of yet another Apple suit by German courts; and to stir the pot a bit more, unrelated Swiss accusations against Apple over the look of its watch on the newly-released iPhone.
Quite aside from providing fodder for intellectual property (IP) lawyers, these legal battles denote a much wider philosophical rift between proprietary and open systems and their respective value propositions. The stakes are far-reaching in shaping both competitive conduct and the wider ethos of a digital world.
Samsung deploys Android source code to power its smart phones and tablets, and in doing so has been making inroads against Apple in this all-important market. But Android is much larger than Samsung, most firmly associated with Google. By creating Android as an open source variant to mainstream proprietary models – most notably Apple – Google sought to foster the conditions for a wider eco-system of apps and devices to challenge and ultimately erode Apple dominance.
And it’s working. While many Canadian headlines focus on RIM’s demise and Apple’s ascent, globally the scene is much different. Nearly two-thirds of all smart phones sold worldwide in the second quarter of this year featured the Android operating system (the subsequent launching of the iPhone 5 a powerful counter-punch). Android is gaining ground as well in the tablet market (fueled primarily by low-end Amazon offerings and higher end Samsung products; rumours abound of a 2013 Google-branded tablet to further challenge Apple pre-eminence).
Yet market shares and alleged patent infringements are only part of a much larger story. While Apple is primarily a software company predicated upon innovative and proprietary product offerings, Google has long championed an alternative business model predicated first and foremost on open and often free services. The search engine is the most obvious example; think too of Gmail, a model that killed the quaint notion of paying a bit more for extra Hotmail storage space.
Critics and cynics alike may counter, and not without some truth, that Google is plenty secretive in terms of its search algorithms and corporate strategy: they are, after all, first and foremost a competitive leviathan seeking to dominate markets and keep their share price in the same stratospheric heights as Apple.
Nonetheless, the Android operating system speaks to a widening philosophy of open source and openness writ large, a counter-weight to the traditions of proprietary protection (epitomized in the past by Microsoft). Indeed, Apple’s brilliance in the music sector was to bridge an arguably dubious but rapidly growing openness philosophy of illegal downloads with a proprietary model for individual song purchases.
Apple’s community of apps-developers is similarly open, albeit on Apple’s terms. In relentlessly challenging Samsung smart phone designs, Apple has emerged as the poster child for defending proprietary protection; conversely, Android and Google-powered openness fuel a Wikipedia-stylized vision of a truly open and participatory society. Android’s attractiveness for many thus lies in a wider set of opportunities for shared innovation and applications for both consumers and designers alike.
While cloud computing itself fragments into proprietary (i.e., private clouds) and open segments, even the nature of granting patents reflects this wider clash of ideals. Teaming up with Google and other open source partners, the U.S. Patent Office has begun crowd-sourcing the assessments of patent applications, a remarkable shift from the traditions of in-house and secretive reviews. While seeking to provide legal protection when genuinely warranted, the wider objective is to leverage collective intelligence and limit barriers to creativity, all hallmarks of a more open source universe.
Analogous to such competing visions of market offerings are individual choices pertaining to online behaviour and the calculus of privacy protection versus the benefits of openness. While Facebook and Twitter operate largely on open source platforms (interoperable across Android and Apple systems), many users are seemingly oblivious to the tools at their disposable to render proprietary their own images and content. In such a world, patent protection may well face a precarious future.
Through competition policies, innovative strategies, and vendor selection for their own internal infrastructures, governments around the world may well tip the balance between these two worldviews. Apple has not formally targeted the public sector as an institutional buyer in a manner akin to Microsoft in the past and Google today with its cloud-based suite of offerings; it will be interesting to see whether such a stance changes going forward.
For now – and for the foreseeable future – our world will feature ongoing clashes of proprietary and openness ideals, tactics and choices. Smart phones and tablets are simply the tip of the iceberg.
Jeffrey Roy is professor in the School of Public Administration at Dalhousie University (firstname.lastname@example.org).