So, Apple and HTC are fighting – and Google are being drawn into the fray – but what does that mean to device users now? While it would be easy to write-off Apple’s patent tantrum as a non-issue to those people toting a Nexus One or HTC Hero, or considering picking up an HTC Legend next month, according to one IP expert the repercussions could have surprising impact not only on future handsets but on existing smartphones.
Harvard Law School professor Jonathan Zittrain reckons the HTC/Apple case could have parallels with the TiVo/EchoStar lawsuit that kicked off all the way back in 2004. There, after a protracted battle, EchoStar were forced to update their existing DVRs with software that removed the contentious functionality. In fact, Zittrain says that “if the court were to side with Apple and issue an injunction that insists HTC kill the phone, or at least some of its functionality, they easily could.”
“The judge simply ordered EchoStar to connect to the DVR boxes via the Web and destroy the functionality. Patent law is a completely different universe online. That means if the court were to side with Apple and issue an injunction that insists HTC kill the phone, or at least some of its functionality, they easily could” Jonathan Zittrain, professor, Harvard Law School
Of course, just because the legal – and technical – potential for such a move is there, that doesn’t make it especially likely. Not only would Apple face a countersuit from HTC (and Google), other legal experts reckon that courts have become increasingly reluctant to issue such blanket rulings.
Still, even if user’s phones aren’t remotely-crippled, the end result is a potentially more cautious tech industry, frightened of the very systems intended to protect and foster innovation. Says MIT professor Eric Von Hippel:
“It’s a bad scene right now. The social value of patents was supposed to be to encourage innovation — that’s what society gets out of it. The net effect is that they decrease innovation, and in the end, the public loses out” Eric Von Hippel, professor, Sloan School of Management, MIT