Home opinion-and-analysis Open Sauce Apple will win the battle but lose the war

Apple will win the battle but lose the war

As Samsung moves aggressively to get an injunction lifted on the one device that was found not to infringe Apple's patents last week, it is good to remember that this is not a fight between Apple and Samsung.

No, this is a large-scale war between Apple and Android. One can't even limit it to Apple v Google, because the latter, by using the Linux kernel as the base for Android, has literally let the genie out of the bottle.

(Disclosure before I continue - I have been using an Android smartphone since April this year and an Android tablet for the last month. Both were bought with my own hard-earned money.)

As I have pointed out, Android is not exactly the kind of open source that would delight the purists. There are a mix of licences for various parts of the operating system, but because the Linux kernel is under the General Public Licence the source stays open to everyone.

Nobody can modify the kernel source and then distribute a  binary without being required to also provide the source. Thank Linus Torvalds for picking that licence and Richard Stallman for thinking it up.

More manufacturers than I can name have picked up the source, built their own proprietary interfaces atop it and started selling their own tablets or smartphones.

The chief executive of Microsoft, Steve Ballmer, once described the GPL as viral and as a cancer. In some ways he is right - once the source is out there, every Tom, Dick and Harry (plus every Susan, Valerie and Mary) can pick it up and devise their own projects.

Programmers in every single country on the face of the earth can use that kernel source, build atop it and release their own mobile devices, be they tablets or smartphones. That scares the bejesus out of Apple and that is why it is trying to put as many obstacles to prevent Android spreading.

At the moment, this patent war appears to be all about the American market. But there are other markets which are as attractive - China, India, Brazil, South Africa, Russia, the rest of the Asia-Pacific. Africa is more or less untouched. Apple wants these markets when they become ripe for the picking.

Let me digress a bit. The US has one big drawback - it is in the same situation that Greece was not so long ago. The only reason it does not have to declare bankruptcy is because there is no-one to push it to do so. Greece had the rest of its more wealthy European Union partners on its back. Uncle Sam just keeps printing more money and putting off the inevitable.

The crash, when it inevitably comes, will make the global financial crisis look like weak tea.

According to Peter Schiff, one of the few American financial experts who has his feet planted firmly in reality, national debt in the US in 2011 was $US15 trillion. All federal tax income for the year was $US2.2 trillion.

Paying down that debt is, thus, not achievable. Schiff, for those who aren't aware, predicted the GFC two years before it happened.

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In the fiscal year 2011, American taxpayers forked out $US454 billion in interest - more than twice as much was collected through corporate income tax.

And remember, the figure for national debt does not factor in contingent liabilities; once that is done, then we are looking at three figures.

Why bring in these statistics? Simply put, the ability of the US consumer to purchase luxury goods is falling, and falling sharply. In September last year, around 15 per cent of the population was judged to be living below the poverty line. And the job market hasn't really improved since then.

This means that any company looking to sell luxury gadgets - and the smartphone and tablet are just that - will have to seriously start looking outside the US.

Android is already widely used in countries like China, India and Brazil. There is an open project based on Android known as Cyanogenmod which has binaries available for a large number of smartphones. Not only is source available, it is free. I use it myself in preference to the Android-based software which came with my phone.

Apple, meanwhile, will never be able to countenance the idea of releasing any of the source for iOS to others. It has long propagated the idea that it keeps everything closed to maintain quality - but I think there is a good measure or fear driving this as well.

Fear that if something is released, somebody else may improve on it in a way that Apple has never been able to do. That would really put the cat among the pigeons.

And so we have patent wars instead - Apple's way of trying to instil fear in other companies that if you even remotely look like us, we will sue you to kingdom come and take your money. Other companies are bound to retaliate where they can, so we will see lawsuits from Google and others too. Google had made a complaint through its Motorola subsidiary.

But ultimately Apple will lose. Android hasn't been around for long, yet from my own experience of using both operating systems - I have to use an iPad at my regular job - it is clear that there isn't much of a difference.

Tablets need a decent multi-tasking environment and more grunt if they are to fully replace laptops. That's what business people are waiting for. Right now, those who bring tablets into meetings are doing it more to look up-to-date than anything else.

But devices that can replace laptops will probably arrive in a year or two - or five. And given that people will have less and less to spend on luxuries, the price factor will take precedence. Guess which platform will have an advantage at that point?

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Sam Varghese

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A professional journalist with decades of experience, Sam for nine years used DOS and then Windows, which led him to start experimenting with GNU/Linux in 1998. Since then he has written widely about the use of both free and open source software, and the people behind the code. His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.