Last week, Apple announced that it was suing handset maker HTC for infringing on 20 of Apple's patents. “We can sit by and watch competitors steal our patented inventions, or we can do something about it. We’ve decided to do something about it,” Steve Jobs said in a press release on the matter, “We think competition is healthy, but competitors should create their own original technology, not steal ours.”
The patents at issue are pretty broad, and cover everything from UI design to hardware architecture.
The lawsuit caught everyone off-guard, including HTC who mentioned to Engadget that they actually learned about the lawsuit via the web before they were even served with pertinent court documents. That aside, Apple's lawsuit against HTC is unique in the sense that Apple has historically used its patents for defensive purposes as opposed to enforcing them via the court system.
The question therefore becomes, why exactly is Apple all of a sudden taking HTC to court?
One possible answer is that this lawsuit is more about Android, and HTC simply finds itself in the unenviable position of being a proxy in Apple's growing battle with Google and its Android OS. At the same time, Apple's lawsuit lists a slew of allegedly infringing HTC handsets that include both Android and Windows Mobile phones. This has led some to believe that Apple's lawsuit against HTC is really a shrewd way for them to go after both Google and Microsoft without having to actually face either company, and their deep pockets, in court.
Details regarding Apple's motives will inevitably get hashed out as litigation proceeds and Apple will eventually shifts its focus to the patents it cares about most. But even if Apple has a strong case, is going after HTC even a good idea in the first place? If you recall, many believe that it was Apple's lawsuit against Microsoft for copying the "look and feel" of the Mac OS that caused Apple to lose its focus in the famed desktop wars of the late 1980's and early 1990's. Remarkably, Steve Jobs, who apparently is invested enough in the lawsuit to actually deliver a quote about it in the press release, once even said that Apple got too caught up with beating Microsoft and lost sight of its ultimate goal in the process - innovation.
When you're losing in the marketplace and can't innovate at a fast enough pace, suing the market leader is unfortunately a common path for companies to take (ahem, Nokia). Apple, however, can innovate and is the market leader. Why, then, are they taking HTC to task? Wouldn't it be a lot easier to beat HTC in the marketplace than in the court room? While protecting intellectual property rights is certainly important, Apple needs to be careful of extending itself such that it becomes the big bad bully that Apple enthusiasts have gleefully been calling Microsoft for years.