Monday, 16 June 2014

The war for the ownership of the smartphone in Dogfight

From the week of June 9th, 2014

For humans, competition is a wickedly sharp double-edged sword. It has driven us to rise up out of the muck of subsistence to build a diverse, technological, multifaceted civilization that is forever improving upon itself. And yet, it has also fostered, and empowered, individuals who possessively lay claim to their little contribution to that societal progress, jealously guarding it as though it alone was the key to all else. Wanting credit for one's work is nothing new. After all, in a world where rewards often only flow to those who receive credit, it's hard not to want to promote one's contribution to the whole. But when guarding that contribution grows into wanting to deny it to others unless they pay for the privilege, then we have all, in some sense, lost. This is the difficulty that lies at the hard of Mr. Vogelstein's excellent document of one of Silicon Valley's most recent and consequential wars.

Though modern computing has existed as an industry for the better part of a century, it wasn't until the introduction of the iPhone that computing became a global phenomenon. After decades of clunky desktop towers, underpowered netbooks, battery-sucking laptops and chunky cellphones, the iPhone crammed everything one could reasonably expect from a personal device into a sleek package that apple, its creator, was able to market to brilliant effect. No more expensive infrastructure, no more cluttered desks, no more tangled nest of cables... Just a simple versatile, wireless device that could exist happily in one's pocket.

For this triumph, Apple understandably wanted credit, not only in the social arena but in the technological as well. It filed numerous patents to protect what it considered to be their crowning glory. And yet, there was no individual aspect, or component, of the iPhone that was innovative or new. Rather, Apple's genius was in assembling those various components into an attractive, functional package that put Apple on the road to being the most powerful brand in the world.

Understandably, Apple would disagree with this view. They would argue that, over years of toil, secrecy and countless man-hours, they invented the modern smartphone. And that, for this singular achievement, they should be rewarded. This position has not only set Apple on a path to litigation, against other smartphone makers, it has permanently damaged its relationship with Google, a once-close ally in the creation of a new, post-Microsoft world. Amongst billion-dollar lawsuits and hyperbolic threats of corporate warfare, the world's largest companies busted up over who gets the credit.

This and more Fred Vogelstein argues in his engrossing Dogfight From the Sidekick to the iPhone, from the early days of Apple and Google against the world to the bitter falling out that has seen the companies abandon friendship for rivalry, the author blends opinion with fact to create an entertaining micro-history of the smartphone that takes few prisoners. Though he clearly admires the innovative spirit and entrepreneurial cultures of both companies, Mr. Vogelstein also properly upbraids them for the arrogant attitudes that cause both to believe that the world would be immeasurably worse without them in it. And yet, it's the extent to which these jealousies and insecurities have dictated their actions that the true damage can be found.

For most of the world, the smartphone is synonymous with iPhone. This isn't true because Apple is litigious. Nor is it true because Apple holds patents for various components within the iPhone. It's true because the iPhone was new, innovative and powerful. It's true because people loved it to such a degree that it transformed a luxury item into a household toy. This didn't happen because Apple got its proper credit. It happened because Apple created a good product. And yet, when faced with competition from companies like Sam-sung and Google, Apple, rather than trust in their own success, rather than capitalize on their clear advantage over everyone else to stay ahead, talked about betrayal, of copycatting, of "thermonuclear war," as though theirs was the only touch-enabled hand-held device with wireless radios allowed to exist. But of course, if that were true, then the iPhone would have never existed at all.

And this is Dogfight's central revelation. There is nothing in the technological world that is truly new. Everything that we have now, and will have in the near future, is a refinement of an older, less successful idea. Attempting to take credit for that idea is not only disingenuous, it is a betrayal of the very spirit of competition that these companies claim to treasure. Worst of all, though, it exposes the truth that these companies don't genuinely believe that a better product will win the day. They believe that hobbling their rivals' ability to compete is the path to victory. That is not only cynical, it's depressing.

A delightful and sobering look at the pitfalls of competition and at the extent to which the powerful fool themselves into thinking they are indispensable... (4/5 Stars)

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