25 October 2011

Jobs Biography Reveals Irrational Android ‘Thermonuclear’ Reaction

thermonuclearIn the lead-up to today’s accelerated launch of Walter Isaacson’s authorised biography of Steve Jobs, much of the publicity has centred on Jobs’ self-professed animosity towards Google generally, and Android in particular.

Of course, some of the most inflammatory material has been provided to the media to generate publicity for the book.  For example, as reported in the Daily Mail (Steve Jobs vowed to use his ‘last dying breath’ destroying iPhone rival Android in a ‘thermonuclear war’), Jobs swore ‘I'm going to destroy Android, because it's a stolen product. I'm willing to go thermonuclear war on this.’  He also vowed to ‘spend my last dying breath if I need to, and I will spend every penny of Apple's $40 billion in the bank, to right this wrong.’ 

For Jobs, it seems, the battle over smartphone technology was not about money, as he reportedly told former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, ‘I don't want your money. If you offer me $5 billion, I won't want it. I've got plenty of money. I want you to stop using our ideas in Android, that's all I want.’

Now that we have been able to obtain a copy of the book (ironically via Amazon for our Kindle, or Kindle reader on Windows or Android), we can confirm that all this is indeed covered in Isaacson’s biography.  Indeed, the book contains a great deal more regarding Jobs’ grievances against Google (‘outside of Search, Google’s products – Android, Google Docs – are shit’), Adobe (‘I put Adobe on the map, and they screwed me’), Microsoft (‘Bill [Gates] is basically unimaginative and has never invented anything….  He just shamelessly ripped off other people’s ideas’) and Dell (email to Michael Dell: ‘CEOs are supposed to have class.  I can see that isn’t an opinion you hold.’)

Viewed in a positive light, Jobs may have been a passionate and visionary man who did not suffer fools gladly.  Alternatively, he may simply have been arrogant and opinionated, with poor impulse control.  Which, if you are a shareholder, are not really the qualities you would be looking for in the guy overseeing the spending of $40 billion in corporate funds.

As with most things in this world, the truth probably lies somewhere between these two extremes.  It is therefore instructive to look beyond the attention-grabbing sound bites and examine Jobs’ response to Android in a little more detail.  What is revealed in Chapter 39 of Isaacson’s book, ‘New Battles, and Echoes of Old Ones’, is that Jobs’ issues with Android were not merely that it ‘stole’ ideas from Apple’s iOS, but also that the result was something that – in Jobs’ view – is inferior to the beautiful, ordered perfection of the closed Apple ecosystem.


Isaacson writes of a ‘town hall’ meeting held at Apple’s campus shortly after the launch of the original iPad in January 2010.  It is clear that Jobs considered Android to be a competitor to Apple in the phone business, and he was furious with Google for this: ‘We did not enter the search business.  They entered the phone business. … They want to kill the iPhone.  We won’t let them.’

Of course, the touchscreen interfaces on Android devices were increasingly imitating features first introduced on the iPhone and iPad.  But competing within the market for a product – whether by imitation or innovation – hardly amounts to a declaration of all-out war-to-the-death against the incumbent.  Did Jobs not remember that he was once the new entrant, rather than the market leader?


Jobs’ initial attempts to suppress competition from Android might generously be described as ‘diplomacy’, but perhaps more aptly as a clumsy attempt to wield Apple’s market power.  According to Isaacson’s account:

Jobs had tried to dissuade Google from developing Android.  He had gone to Google’s headquarters … in 2008 and gotten into a shouting match with [Google founders Larry] Page and [Sergei] Brin, and the head of the Android development team, Andy Rubin. … ‘I said we would, if we had good relations, guarantee Google access to the iPhone and guarantee it one or two icons on the home screen,’ he recalled.  But he also threatened that if Google continued to develop Android and used any iPhone features, such as multi-touch, he would sue. … [I]n January 2010 HTC introduced an Android phone that boasted multi-touch and many other aspects of the iPhone’s look and feel.

And the rest, as they say, is history.  Apple sued HTC for infringement of twenty of its patents.  More recently – as we are keenly aware here in Australia – it has had Samsung in its sights.  It was shortly after the commencement of legal action against HTC that Jobs made the ‘grand theft’ and ‘thermonuclear’ statements that have been extensively reported by the media.


The HTC and Samsung law suits have been widely characterised as an attack on Android itself.  We note, for example, the assertion on the widely-read FOSS Patents blog (see Australian injunction could be extended to other Samsung products, HTC, Motorola -- and beyond) that the limited Australian injunction against the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 could, if it becomes permanent spell ‘GAME OVER DOWN UNDER for Android’ (alarming bold caps in original).  ‘In that scenario’, opines blogger Florian Mueller, Apple would ‘easily’ be able to shut down any Android-based multitouch-capable product.

Yet what the Samsung and HTC products have in common, which sets them aside from the Android ‘pack’, is something for which Google is not strictly responsible.  HTC smartphones, whether running Android or Windows Mobile, employ the HTC Sense user interface (UI), while Samsung’s touchscreen mobile devices (including the Galaxy Tab 10.1) employ variants of its TouchWiz UI.  Both of these ‘user experience layers’ are proprietary extensions to the open-source Android platform.

It is therefore no coincidence that Apple is pursuing these companies in particular, rather than attacking Android at the source (Google), no matter what Jobs’ personal grievances against that company may have been.  The issue, as we see it, is not so much whether Android infringes Apple’s UI patents, but whether Android as enhanced by HTC Sense or Samsung’s TouchWiz infringe Apple’s patents.  Android may be the platform that supports these proprietary UI’s, and a competitor to Apple’s iOS, but it does not follow that all Android devices – or even all Samsung Android devices – are vulnerable to the same Apple patents.


Isaacson identifies a more fundamental philosophical issue underlying the Apple/Google dispute:

Google presented Android as an ‘open’ platform; its open-source code was freely available for multiple hardware makers to use on whatever phones or tablets they built.  Jobs, of course, had a dogmatic belief that Apple should closely integrate its operating systems with its hardware.  In the 1980s Apple had not licensed out its Macintosh operating system, and Microsoft eventually gained dominant market share by licensing its system to multiple hardware makers and, in Jobs’s mind, ripping off Apple’s interface.

Now, the lesson that a more hard-nosed business-person might take from this experience is that the Microsoft model was more successful, and that the alternative model of tightly integrating a ‘closed’ hardware and software platform had essentially failed in a competitive marketplace.

This is not, however, what Jobs took from the experience.  According to Isaacson, Jobs did not see the issue as one of ‘closed versus open’ (where surely ‘open’ is better than ‘closed’), but rather of ‘integrated versus fragmented’ (where, conversely, the former seems like the preferable option).  As Isaacson writes: ‘[w]as it better, as Apple believed and and Jobs’s own controlling perfectionism almost compelled, to tie the hardware and software and content handling into one tidy system that assured a simple user experience?  Or was it better to give users and manufacturers more choice and free up avenues for more innovation, by creating software systems that could be modified and used in different devices?’

Schmidt described Apple as ‘a brilliant innovator of closed systems’ who ‘don’t want people to be on their platform without permission.  The benefit of a closed platform is control.’  For Bill Gates it is apparent that ‘eventually … open will succeed, but that’s where I come from.’  Jobs’ view was different: ‘…look at the results – Android’s a mess.  It has different screen sizes and versions, over a hundred permutations. … I like being responsible for the whole user experience.  We do it not to make money.  We do it because we want to make great products, not crap like Android.’

Or, on a less generous view, because Jobs was a control freak!


There is no doubt that the closed/open, integrated/fragmented dichotomy is real.  However, these are merely the two extremes, and there exists a continuum in between.

Apple is not in dispute with Samsung in Australia and elsewhere simply because Android is open and iOS is closed.  The thing that makes the Galaxy Tab 10.1 a formidable competitor to the iPad is not the openness of Android – there is no shortage of uncompetitive Android devices on the market.  The sleek, slim and attractive construction of the Galaxy Tab is Samsung’s doing, and it is hardly a coincidence that Samsung is a major supplier of the components that enable Apple to produce devices of similarly slight form factor. 

And Samsung’s TouchWiz UI is not open – it is proprietary – and it is no doubt made even more effective when coupled with Samsung’s own touchscreen technology.  In this aspect, at least, Samsung is adopting an ‘integrated’ rather then ‘fragmented’ approach.  It is therefore unsurprising that the two patents supporting Apple’s preliminary injunction against the Galaxy Tab 10.1 in Australia cover, respectively, the touch screen technology itself, and the multi-touch UI that it supports.

Tony Bradley, at PCWorld, has suggested that maybe Google and Samsung really did ‘steal’ from Apple (see What If Steve Jobs Is Right?)  But ultimately the dispute is not about ‘theft’.  Despite their past history with Apple, neither Google nor Samsung has ‘stolen’ anything, any more than Jobs ‘stole’ from Xerox when he set out to imitate – and improve upon – its desktop GUI metaphor.  In the absence of some valid exclusive right, such as a patent, mere imitation is not ‘theft’.  It is competition.

For Jobs, it seems that the challenge to Apple’s market position was personal.  While his passion is admirable, it is not necessarily good for business.  Apple’s shareholders would not have thanked him if he had actually spent $40 billion dollars tilting at Android windmills.  Victory—if it came at all – would have been pyrrhic, leaving the company decimated by its legal bills.  At the end of the day, the hypothetical $5 billion payment from Google – which Jobs stated he would not accept even if it were offered – would be more than adequate compensation for Apple’s innovations, sufficient to completely fund Apple’s R&D for a number of years.


Ultimately, a decision to litigate should be based upon rational consideration of the costs and benefits, just like any other business decision.  The company’s board and executives have an obligation to act in the interests of the shareholders, and to maximise the return on investment.  While this might be achieved by restraining competitors’ from infringing legitimate intellectual property rights, there are other ways to extract value from intellectual property, including licensing deals.

An approach to enforcement of intellectual property rights that is driven by emotional, rather than rational, impulses, is almost inevitably going to result in poor business decisions.  While the passing of Steve Jobs is undoubtedly a blow to Apple, which has benefited from his drive and vision, it may also provide an opportunity for reflection upon some of the directions the company has taken.  It is time for cooler heads to assess the costs and benefits of Apple’s global litigation strategy against Android, and ask whether ‘thermonuclear war’ – conventionally associated with mutual assured destruction (MAD) – is really the path that the company wishes to be on.

Steve Jobs: The Exclusive Biography by Walter Isaacson, is available now, published by Little, Brown.


Pakasnica said...

Awesome article.

Patentology (Mark Summerfield) said...

You're welcome.  Glad you liked it!

New Writer said...

In Jobs's defense, and as patent expert Gene Quinn pointed out recently, Google seems to get sued over Android for patent infringement with inordinate frequency. At first I thought that this must merely be because Android has been such a successful and popular product. But, as Quinn implied, maybe it's really due to the questionable quality of Android's underlying IP. Or perhaps it's a bit of both.

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