Victorious Apple: The Wireless Hegemon’s Victory

The Apple monster has received a boost with its victory on Friday over Samsung Electronics Co. in the first major patent trial over smartphone technology, ensconcing it in the wireless industry as never before.  The mobile industry, take heed.  Competition, always a moot point in the industry, has been further trashed by legal fiat.  As Anton Troinovski in the Wall Street Journal (August 24) put it in a headline, “Apple’s Victory Sends Fear Through Android Ecosystem.”

The Yonhap News Agency (August 25) was just as graphic about the jury’s award of $1.05 billion in total damages against Samsung.  “Samsung, South Korea’s electronic giant, suffered a crushing defeat Friday in a courtroom war against Apple, casting dark clouds over its booming sales of smartphones and tablet computers in the U.S. market.”

The battle between Samsung and Apple over “utility” patents on the iPhone and iPad covering, amongst other things, the way smartphone screens reshape or the way they are double tapped, has been taking place now for over a year, with some 30 lawsuits in the U.S., South Korea and seven other states. The Californian verdict has effectively dealt a blow to the Android system, which was the alternative to the iPhone behemoth.

The heat and hostility of the confrontation can be gauged by the verdict of the Seoul Central District Court, which concluded that both companies had violated each other’s patents.  If competition, in the strict sense of the word, is to flourish in the wireless system (bizarrely termed an ecosystem by computer aficionados), violations and fitful treading on the turf of competitors is surely inevitable.  That, however, is something that the legal world of patents has stifled.

What is striking about Apple’s corporate strategy is how it has wooed the carrier market, lodging the iPhone brand across the market.  Apple’s strangling tentacles have taken hold of AT&T Inc., Verizon Wireless and Sprint Nextel Corp.  The company’s strategy has been to seek sizable payments from the carriers to subsidize purchase of iPhones.  Such a strategy can only remind one of the ancient and medieval technique of forcing neighbouring states to pay tribute to the region’s most powerful empire.  The precursor to profit is the good old bribe.  On discovering such a tribute system – that Sprint, for instance, had arranged the purchase of $15.5 billion worth of iPhone stock – stocks have plummeted.

The iPhone has become the unnecessary necessity.  The possibility of buying a phone that is merely a device to call on has vanished, or at the most, been vanquished to corners of the wireless imperium.  As a despondent Mike Elgan put it in Wi-Fi Planet (September 28, 2009), the iPhone was a contagion, more effective than the swine flu. The need for others to catch up with spreading this contagion has become pressing.

Once you catch this particularly virulent bug, you become susceptible to a personality disorder that compels you to filter all experiences in life through the prism of whether or not there’s an app for it.  It creates a bias in favour of information and media available through apps – and another bias against content not delivered through the iPhone.

With each passing day, the “app” world is creeping into every minute facet of living.  There are those that are free and inherently worthless and those that just might do, as one iPhone app does, help law students pass their bar exams at the cost of $1000.  “Part of the reason for BarMax’s success,” writes Jason Del Rey in Inc. Magazine (June 22, 2010), “is the fact that bar preparation classes cost three times as much.”

The triumph of Apple was not merely to make goods pretty, but to make them seemingly indispensable to human vanity.  Love is something of a disease, romanticism a disorder, and the Apple romantics have conquered in a remorseless fashion through their bereft jargon of the “app.”  To have an iPhone, is to be alive, to be a circulating blood cell in the wireless organism of Apple might.   The screen has been vested with living properties, and each time, as if it were drawing force from its human subject, the iPhone deprives as much as it gives.  That Samsung dared do the same thing could not be allowed to pass.  The smartphone wars, despite this court decision, are set to continue.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne and can be reached at: bkampmark@gmail.com. Read other articles by Binoy.