In the early days of the iOS-Android war, Steve Jobs told his biographer Walter Isaacson “I’m going to destroy Android, because it’s a stolen product. I’m willing to go thermonuclear war on this.” Everyone immediately anticipated patent claims against the Android OS. I doubt many anticipated claims against Google’s undiversified core business.
ArsTechnica is reporting that Rockstar, the company spawned from an Apple-Microsoft-RIM-Sony alliance which, in 2011, outbid Google for a trove of Nortel and Novell patents, has filed suit against Google:
The complaint against Google involves six patents, all from the same patent “family.” They’re all titled “associative search engine,” and list Richard Skillen and Prescott Livermore as inventors. The patents describe “an advertisment machine which provides advertisements to a user searching for desired information within a data network.”
The oldest patent in the case is US Patent No. 6,098,065, with a filing date of 1997, one year before Google was founded.
If you think that sounds like nearly 95% of Google’s revenue, you’re not alone. This sole patent feels like enough motivation for Google to have won this auction at all costs. Not only did Google not win, it made joke bids. What were they thinking?
Perhaps Google wasn’t thinking. Perhaps it was woefully unprepared for the 2011 auction and lacked a sufficiently clear picture of how valuable the portfolio was — and conversely, how dangerous it would be in other hands. Or perhaps Google decided to brave court battles and ideally set a precedent that crumbles the patent troll house of cards for good. That sounds very, very risky, and doesn’t explain why it bid up to $4.4B in the first place.
It also doesn’t explain why Google paid twelve billion dollars (!!!) for Motorola just one month later. It’s harder than ever to see the Motorola purchase as anything but panic: having lost the Nortel auction, possibly not even realizing what they’d lost until after the fact, Google scrambled for countermeasures. Larry Page practically admitted as much when he announced the deal.
Unfortunately, Motorola’s patents have not proven too useful. Florian Mueller repeatedly predicted this mess, chronicling a number of courtroom dead-ends since the Motorola deal was made. And then there’s the small matter of Motorola continuing to hemorrhage cash. I wonder if Dan Lyons still thinks the deal was a “rope-a-dope”.
I’ve said this multiple times in the past, and I’ll say it again: I don’t like this game. Rockstar looks, smells, and now acts like countless NPE’s that have done more harm than good — namely Lodsys, which has been aggressively harassing Apple’s own ecosystem. It’s extremely disappointing to see Apple facilitate this kind of behavior. At the same time, the missed Nortel auction and dubious Motorola purchase look as awful a strategic blunder as ever for Google. They kept their head in the sand for too long.
A month after announcing it, Samsung has begun advertising its Galaxy Gear “smartwatch” on television. The first ad features clips from various movies and TV shows of people talking into and tinkering with watches that were more than just watches. It concludes with a shot of someone using a Galaxy Gear. The implication was that we now finally live in the future, thanks to Samsung.
Many people immediately noted that the ad was reminiscent of Apple’s original 2007 ad for the iPhone, titled simply “Hello.” The easy thing to say here is that this is just another instance of Samsung aping Apple. It’s a reasonable charge, but it’s also lazy. These ads are alike in appearance and nothing more.
First, it’s only fair to point out that the “Hello” ad is not typical Apple advertising. Apple’s ads are historically plain, to the point, and focused entirely around the product itself. In “Hello”, we see the product for a split second, after a barrage of licensed content with no connection to Apple or Apple products. There’s a reason for that departure, which also must be noted, because Samsung clearly did not.
The “Hello” ad worked on a number of levels:
- It was a playful introduction to the product
- It set very low but still very real expectations to build perspective
- It clearly demonstrated progress in technology and design
The message behind “Hello”, and its distinction from the usual Apple product advertisements, was and still is clear: You are not ready for this, so we need to formally introduce you.
The iPhone dramatically tore down our understanding of everything that preceded it: phones; computers; software; the Internet; how we consume information; how we communicate; how we are (not) beholden to gigantic infrastructure companies that basically hate us. It’s all done differently now. The Way Things Are was about to become The Way Things Were. So, “Hello.”
The Galaxy Gear ad, and the Galaxy Gear itself, convey none of this. The ad primes us with decades of fantastic expectations — expectations which just about any review of the product you can find will tell you have not been met. It also implicitly, and very ironically, shows just how lacking in vision the product itself is. The iPhone ad says, “We’re starting over.” The Gear ad says, “We tried to make that exact thing you’ve seen on TV all these years.”
One of the common cheapshots following the Gear announcement back in September was “This is what we get when Samsung doesn’t have anything to copy.” This new ad is Samsung’s reply. “I beg your pardon, we absolutely copied!” It demonstrates not just a lack of creativity in the product, but also a complete lack of awareness in its marketing.
This all stands just the same whether or not you think the TV spot is actually derivative. The problem with this ad is not that it’s ripping anyone off. The problem with this ad is that it exhibits everything wrong with Samsung as a company.
OK, so I got the price wrong.
In a surprise Labor Day announcement, Microsoft is acquiring Nokia’s devices and services business.
I already said most of what I think about this pairing two and a half years ago. If you get past that melodramatic headline, most of it still holds. But I liked it a lot more when the year was 2011 and the price was (even if rhetorically) free. What’s happened since then to justify going all-in now? Now all I have is a pile of questions:
1) Why was this announcement made after throwing Ballmer out? That news came a mere ten days ago. Combine this Nokia news with the big reorg, and you have a much more lucid claim that things are changing in a big way. If Ballmer were to announce his retirement this week, it’s a lot easier to credibly claim Microsoft is taking a new direction and that it’s time for new leadership.
2) Knowing that Ballmer is a lame duck, is this his deal, or the board’s? If it’s his deal, that straitjacket just became an iron box. If it’s the board’s deal, why is his name on the announcement? (“He’s not gone yet” is not a good answer. He’s gone.)
3) A lot of problems at Microsoft, from a poisonous adversarial culture to a lack of vision, have been illuminated in the last few weeks. Who honestly thinks this merger will solve any of them? (Bad acquisitions, by the way, are a piece of Ballmer’s legacy that has been, in my opinion, underreported since the news of his retirement broke.)
4) The Elop-as-next-Microsoft-CEO buzz has already begun. Why? How’s he done at Nokia? The only “rational” reason to have him succeed Ballmer is that he seems like an appropriate successor to Ballmer in every way — in other words, he absolutely should not get the job. Kara Swisher loves the vapor-video he apparently commissioned. I prefer Bret Victor’s take on these sort of things. Note Victor’s repeated, damning use of the v-word.
5) Nokia was already making very nice Windows Phone hardware. And the Windows Phone software, while not making a huge market share dent, has been routinely praised. What, then, has been the problem — and again, is this merger really the solution? This is easy to answer with another question: How would the Lumia line be selling if it ran Android, and without Nokia as a Google subsidiary?
6) Microsoft just disclosed it only makes $10 per Nokia phone sold. Gross margins per unit are estimated at $40. When, if ever, will this deal pay for itself? What does today’s news have to do with increasing either unit sales or device margins?
One thing must be observed: all the major mobile players — Apple, Google, Microsoft, and oh what the hell, BlackBerry — now own a top-to-bottom technology stack. Alan Kay was right as ever when he said “People who are really serious about software should make their own hardware.”
But Microsoft needs to be thinking big and ahead, and removing burdens. I just don’t think its inherent ills can be cured, or even disturbed, by this deal. Assuming nothing fundamentally changes at the top, I believe it will be a complication that only accelerates the fall of a giant.
“Why you got a new phone?”
Those words, spoken by my three-year-old immediately upon seeing it for the first time, are all anyone really needs to know about iOS 7. It’s a reimagining that catapults the system into a new era while retaining the most important intuitions built up over the last six years. So much has changed, yet the changes themselves are so basic. As Lessien wisely noted months ago, iOS didn’t need to change that much. The biggest risk was change for the sake of change: losing the efficiency that familiarity breeds.
Apple has kept all the right things, and built a new experience celebrating the values behind them. iOS 7 is truly the sum of its parts. On their own, many of these new elements — parallax, translucency, animations, motion — might seem out of place, even gimmicky. Together, they put forth a clear vision, one that’s reinforced by one of the best marketing videos I think Apple has ever made. Even considering Apple’s famously deliberate style, the choice and use of words in this video (and other WWDC materials) stand out: Clarity. Depth. Vitality. Detail. Deference. Realism.
It’s the realism I want to talk about. John Gruber calls it “A real thing, not pixels rendered on glass.” Rene Ritchie says “iOS 7 is alive.” This is the sort of update I was hoping iOS 5 would be nearly two years ago.
What took so long? I think it was a combination of hardware and momentum. Not so long ago, Steve Jobs was telling users that wallpapers were too slow. The deep animations and real-time blur effects you see between layers in iOS7 are all hardware-intensive operations. The tug of war between “realistic” design and hardware limitations led to an early compromise of false illusions — shadows, bevels, borders. Once these trends are in place, it’s hard to buck them.
Now the hardware has caught up, and the Apple design team has a new leader. We don’t need the deception of “photorealism” anymore. Despite the loss of these tricks, iOS 7 feels more real. The parallax effect conveys an entire living world under that glass, not just abstract pictures and icons. This is reinforced by the launch and quit animations: your eye never loses sight of where you’re going, or where you came from. You are moving through this world. There is almost no change in context, ever.
The emphasis on text is also striking. More than just content, text has replaced iconography in many cases. Look at Camera: the modes — VIDEO, PHOTO, SQUARE, PANO — are represented by text for the first time ever on iOS. This to me is proof that “clarity” has taken top priority. iOS is available in a number of countries and languages, which means every piece of text has to be localized (translated) many times over. This isn’t only time consuming, it’s disruptive to UI design: a short word in English is not necessarily short in German, and suddenly things don’t fit on screen anymore. I attended many meetings at Apple where people cringed at changing a word shortly before release, because it meant a whole new round of localize-then-build-then-test.
Icons avoid this problem — when done right. They speak no language, which is to say every language. Or they can only speak a few. The truth is, images have nearly as much cultural variance as text. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but sometimes a single word is worth a thousand pictures. That realization, raised above any logistical or procedural consequences, tells me just how serious this new philosophy is.
Clarity. Depth. Vitality. Detail. Deference. Realism. The revelations of iOS 7 are overdue, but still quite welcome.
Facebook Home is coming. It’s a unique threat to Google’s mastery of Android that Google can blame nobody but itself for. It’s the unique nature of the threat — both Home’s technical foundation, and the nature of Facebook’s rivalry with Google — that I believe makes Home the first real test of Google’s “open” mantra regarding Android.
There have been many challenges to date, but most of them involve “forks” of the Android system: where another company builds their own system on top of a previous Android release. Amazon’s Kindle Fire, Barnes and Noble’s nook, and Samsung’s rumored / assumed proprietary fork are all notable examples of Android derivatives. None of these to date have looked poised to take Android away from Mountain View anytime soon. Samsung, with its market share momentum and marketing prowess, could stand to be a significant threat, but for now its flagship products still run Google’s “stock” Android, more or less.
Horace Dediu put it plainly:
Facebook Home can only reside on Android because only Google was daft enough to allow it.
At the least, I expect an increased emphasis from Google on the virtues of “stock” Android, and an increased push to make that consistent for consumers. This is already underway on both OEM and developer fronts, but Facebook’s lurking presence will force the issue that much harder.
Home’s to-be-determined success could also force Apple’s hand. Such a product is neither technically nor legally feasible on iOS at the moment, and Facebook’s integration into iOS 6, while powerful, is much less than Facebook Home provides on Android, and thus presumably much less than Facebook wants on iOS. As I said last week, if too many consumers start considering Facebook Home a deal breaker, Apple may need to make some moves of its own. How many consumers that is, and whether they’ll in fact get on board, remains to be seen. All of this just underscores what’s at stake for everyone — Facebook most of all. With just one announcement, Facebook has made itself a strategic stakeholder in the mobile landscape. It’s no longer just a website and an app.
Google knew what it was doing when it made and marketed Android as an “open” system. It surely anticipated forks by handset makers as a manageable risk as long as Google kept advancing the system. But I wonder if it expected something like Facebook Home: an inside-out heist, made by a company after the same exact user data and advertisers Google is after. How it chooses to respond in the near future should give us an answer.