Apple, Samsung, Motorola Patent War May Shake Mobile Industry to Its Core

NEWS ANALYSIS: For some of us, the use of litigation instead of innovation as a way to beat the competition brings back memories of when that practice failed before and in the process killed a once-prominent database company.

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 during the early days of the PC revolution in mid-1980s. Ashton-Tate was as big or even bigger in those days than Microsoft, and more influential than Lotus.

In other words, it was a lot like Apple in many ways. 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 products. Eventually, Ashton-Tate stopped innovating and instead started depending on technology developed by others, and it would sue the bejesus out of anyone that the company lawyers thought was getting a little too close to its ideas for comfort.

There 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 like 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 products with technology it might not actually own. Also like Ashton-Tate, Apple appears to be reaching a time when innovation is flagging, replaced instead 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 real. But it is clear that many of the patents that Apple is claiming aren't innovations at all and that the patents 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, Apple will find itself being held accountable for this.

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...