Why Can’t Android Manufacturers Just Re-Invent the Wheel?

December 11, 2011
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I’ve just stumbled upon an article on Techcrunch that says much of what I’ve been saying in the past about the whole idea that Apple should have legal monopoly over the tablet market because of some patents or because they happened to make a more desirable tablet than anyone else up to that point.

The thing about the patent system is that it doesn’t account for how businesses are created in the real world. Every now and then you’ll have a company that creates a new “product category”. Well, they actually create a “product” first, but since that product can’t really fit in any existing category, it ends up defining its own product category.

But you can’t have a “category”, which implies multiple products, without competition, and you can’t have competition belonging to the *same* category without looking quite similar or having the same type of functionality. That’s what being part of a certain product category means in the first place.

You can’t have an HDTV without creating much of what an HDTV represents. You can’t have a Foursquare competitor, without doing much of what Foursquare does.

Unfortunately, the patent system doesn’t really take this into account, so this is why Apple in many cases (at least where the judges don’t have much common sense) gets away with all the injunctions and banning of the competitors from the market (although many of these have been reversed lately, or at least Apple has been attacked the same way)

But make no mistake, if Apple had their way, you wouldn’t have any competition left, because the two ideas are conflicting with each other. You can’t have a “product category” without having competitors that do much of the same, and the way the patent system works now is it gives monopoly power over certain functionality (way too broad in many cases) for a long period of time. If Apple had their way, either the competition would make devices that aren’t really tablets, but different types of products altogether, or their tablets would look like this:

That is a mock-up made by Gizmodo, according to Apple’s so called “suggestions” (so friendly of them, isn’t it?):

  • Overall shape that isn’t rectangular, or doesn’t have rounded corners.
  • Thick frames rather than a thin rim around the front surface.
  • Front surface that isn’t entirely flat.
  • Profiles that aren’t thin.
  • Cluttered appearance.

The Techcrunch article makes a pretty good case on why it’s hard for a competitor to create something vastly different from the product that has defined the category, and yet he still suggests the others should somehow “re-invent the wheel”. I’m all for innovation and I think the Android manufacturers should try to differentiate their tablets and phones as much as possible from Apple’s devices, but they won’t be able to change something so fundamental as their main shape. After all, even the iPad has mostly the same shape tablets before it have had, and they are not the only ones who could predict how a tablet will look like in the future or how think it will be.

This is a mock-up of what was supposed to be the Crunchpad, which if the first device that made me think I would want a tablet, and this was shown maybe a year before we’ve even started hearing rumors about a potential Apple tablet. So who’s to say that Apple didn’t copy its design?

In the end, what ultimately made the iPad successful was not its hardware so much as it was the software. The main reason why Windows tablets have never succeeded was because they largely were not optimized for touch, and not just the OS, but all 3rd party programs, too, which is why this will continue to remain a major issue for Windows tablets even if the OS itself gets a touch optimized interface.

Android is in the position to continue what Apple started because both the OS and the apps made for it are optimized for touch, but still, Google will have to push a lot harder to grow its 3rd party ecosystem if they want Android to take full advantage of the growing tablet market.

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