Patent Wars Could Ruin Apple

wayne Rash
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Wayne Rash says Apple increasingly looks like Ashton-Tate – the company which was eventually destroyed by patent litigation

It’s not surprising that Apple’s CEO Tim Cook doesn’t remember Ashton-Tate. He was hardly out of graduate school when the company crashed and burned as the result of a series of misguided and ultimately tragic lawsuits, the final one of which showed that the company didn’t own the technology upon which it depended.

The chances are, very few people remember this company, despite the fact that it was once one of the largest technology companies in the world. Those were the early days of the PC revolution, in mid-1980s. Back then, Ashton-Tate was as big, or even bigger than Microsoft, and more influential than Lotus.

Lessons from history

In many ways, Ashton-Tate was a lot like Apple. The company started out with some innovative ideas that were primarily driven by one man. The company depended on one primary product and was bolstered by a few related inventions. Eventually, Ashton-Tate stopped innovating and instead started depending on technology developed by others. It would sue the bejesus out of anyone that the company lawyers thought was getting a little too close to its designs.

iPhone, Steve jobsThere were differences, of course. Ashton-Tate became famous because of a database program called dBase II, which ran initially on the then new personal computer operating system called CP/M. When MS-DOS came along, it ran on that, too.

So how does Apple’s seemingly endless series of lawsuits make it similar to Ashton-Tate? There are parallels. Like Ashton-Tate, Apple is very aggressive when it comes to efforts to protect its products. And it appears the company goes to great lengths to seek protections for technology which it might not actually own. Also like Ashton-Tate, Apple appears to be reaching a time when innovation is flagging, replaced by the acquisition of innovation by others, sometimes at the last minute.

In the current lawsuits between Apple and Samsung, the charges and counter-charges have been traded so many times it’s hard to know what’s going on. But it is clear that many of the patents that Apple is claiming aren’t innovations at all, and were either granted improperly, or they’re being claimed improperly by Apple.

Leaving aside the question of whether you can patent a rectangle, Apple’s claims of having invented the tablet computer or the use of icons on a touch screen or a number of other claims are clearly specious. Eventually, the company will find itself being held accountable for this.

Drums of war

That accountability may be arriving in the form of a new suit by Motorola Mobility, now owned by Google. Google, of course, developed the Android mobile OS that’s got Apple running scared. Motorola holds a selection of basic patents related to mobile phones, some of which were filed long before Apple sold its first iPhone.

Apple StoreThe current lawsuit is asking the US International Trade Commission to block the import of Apple iPhones, iPads, iPods and Macintosh computers because of the alleged patent infringement. While there’s no question that Apple will fight, the fact is that each time it goes to court, Apple runs the risk that someone will discover that Apple doesn’t own the rights to whatever patent is in question.

Ultimately the entire structure that Apple has put together can simply fall apart because the intellectual property on which it’s based turns out not to belong to them. Whether this will happen in the case of the Apple-Samsung mess remains to be seen. It also remains to be seen whether it could happen in the recent Motorola action with the ITC.

Taking risks

But Apple’s risk, like Ashton-Tate’s, isn’t as much the financial cost of the lawsuits. After all, the company has plenty of money and can afford to pay for licenses if it must. Instead, Apple’s risk is twofold. The first is that too much attention will be taken away from innovation and spent on lawsuits. This may already be happening as Apple buys companies in a hurry because it needs their technology immediately.

The second risk, again like Ashton-Tate, is that Apple will lose the intellectual property on which it depends. With Ashton Tate, that happened when the company embarked on a disastrous series of lawsuits against people and companies trying to use the programming language that dBase II used, and later against people and companies who were making clones of the product.

Ultimately, the discovery process turned up the fact that the original database language and file structure were developed at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena and as a result were owned by the government. When that happened, the company imploded and ceased operations by 1991.

Could the same thing happen to Apple? The short answer is yes. Unfortunately the company has embarked on a course in which history is being ignored. Philosopher George Santayana warned that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Apple seems to be perilously close to following the path previously marked by Ashton-Tate and other companies that believed that an enterprise can replace innovation with litigation and still succeed. Unfortunately, history shows that isn’t true.

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Wayne Rash is senior correspondent for eWEEK and a writer with 30 years of experience. His career includes IT work for the US Air Force.

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