Thursday, August 02, 2012

Tech wars continue for Samsung, Apple, Google et al

This week's tech news has seen Samsung in court and some of its mobile users fuming. Users of Hotmail and Gmail have seen changes to the services while those dipping into Google's latest tablet offering have experienced frustrations both in terms of buying the device and some technical issues after getting their hands on the much lauded Nexus 7.

Patents and copyright

Electronics giants Samsung and Apple were once again in court this week after accusing each other of copying ideas. In its seemingly never ending war against Google and Android, Apple has targeted Samsung primarily because the South Korean company is the biggest fish in terms of Android device manufacturers.

The jury trial is important as it may set the stage for the way smartphones are designed and built in future. In many respects it is a trial of ideas, rather than the actual technology in the devices themselves. It concerns the shape of the devices, button placement, colours, the interactivity between the user and the tablet or phone and the nature of the features themselves.

Some critics of Apple have suggested the patent laws need to rewritten as many go far beyond the intention of curbing copyright infringement.

Samsung was clearly influenced by the iPhone. Samsung in fact admitted this on day one of the trial, stating, "the iPhone was an inspiring product to everyone. Being inspired by a product is called competition. It's not copying."

Taking bites out of Apple 

But Apple assert that the ideas incorporated into Samsung devices are blatant infringements of their own flagship devices.

It is not the first time Apple has made such accusations. When the first flagship Google phone launched in 2010 Apple went to war with HTC. The company claimed that HTC had breached some 20 patents on the Nexus One [Wired].

One such issue was US PATENT NO. 7,657,849 which covered the "Unlocking of a device by performing gestures on an unlock image". The definition was broad and could be applied to almost any Android device on the market.

The patent encompasses any "device with a touch-sensitive display that might be unlocked via gestures performed on the touch-sensitive display". This could be a predefined gesture for unlocking the device and the "display of one or more unlock images with respect to which the predefined gesture is to be performed in order to unlock the device".

"The performance of the predefined gesture with respect to the unlock image may include moving the unlock image to a predefined location and/or moving the unlock image along a predefined path. The device may also display visual cues of the predefined gesture on the touch screen to remind a user of the gesture." [Gizmodo]

This is not an issue concerning the use of logos or specific electronic software. It merely covers the functionality of the way a device might operate. In essence, to a layperson it is restricting the way one might switch a device on or off.

Another bone of contention was the now familiar multitouch gestural input, more often referred to as pinch and zoom. The patent-infringement lawsuit prompted some to imagine what the Nexus One might look like should Apple win. It did not look pretty [Wired].

The outcome of the lawsuit was not widely publicised, though no changes were made to the Nexus One, perhaps due to an undisclosed out-of-court settlement.

Samsung latest target

However Apple has persisted in its continuing war with those it claims are copying its products. And Samsung are clearly in Apple's gunsights.

The patent war is doing Apple no favours. In many people's eyes it makes the company look petty. But the stakes are high, with Samsung facing potential sales bans [Mashable].

"Thermonuclear war"

But the war against Samsung, which is as much motivated by Apple's battle against Google could sully the reputation of the company. Whether that will translate in terms of lost sales remains to be seen, though Apple are clearly losing ground to devices running on Google's Android operating system

According to Walter Isaacson's Steve Jobs biography, the late CEO had tried to dissuade Google from developing Android and eventually became incensed when iPhone-like features started to appear on Android phones. Isaacson writes that Jobs told him, "Our lawsuit is saying, 'Google, you fucking ripped off the iPhone, wholesale ripped us off.' Grand theft. I will 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. I'm going to destroy Android, because it's a stolen product. I'm willing to go to thermonuclear war on this. They are scared to death, because they know they are guilty."

'Admission of guilt'

Samsung have seemed to admit guilt by this last week releasing an update which removed the internal search function on its new Samsung Galaxy SIII though later claimed it was "a mistake" [BBC].

"The most recent software upgrade for the Galaxy SIII in the UK included the inadvertent removal of the universal search function," the company said in a statement. "Samsung will provide the correct software upgrade within the next few days."

It appears the firm meant only to prevent some US models from being able to use a Google-powered search tool to show information sourced from within the phone's memory in its results.

Apple claims the technology infringes its patent to a unified search interface which it uses in its Siri app to collate results from a range of sources. To suggest the universal search function is a copyright infringement is a somewhat contentious claim however. The ability to search a device, whether that be a computer or smartphone is a widely used feature. It has been a part of Windows computers for years and Google Desktop augmented the capability to find items on a device.

The fact that Apple claim they invented universal search, even if specific to mobile devices, is spurious to say the least.

Email wars

Another fight between the major tech giants is that of webmail and cloud services. While Google has maintained built a strong user base and may have overtaken established players such as Hotmail and Yahoo.

Together the three main service have some 1 billion users. For a long time, Hotmail was ahead of Yahoo, with Gmail a distant third. But recent figures suggest Gmail has caught up with its two rivals [email marketing reports]

In a June 2012 blog post, Google revealed Gmail now has 425 million active users globally. It is not clear how many of them are through Android sign-ups, rather than active email users.

An October 2011 Comscore report [CNET] put Hotmail's user base at 350 million. Meanwhile the same report estimated Yahoo! Mail had 310 million users.

Now in a bid to rekindle interest in its webmail service Microsoft has rebranded Hotmail as Outlook and will shutter the former service later in the year [Guardian / Daily Mail].

The move is designed to unify Microsoft's range of software products, such as Windows Phone and Office, and entice a new generation of Facebook-addicted users who want to see status updates alongside emails.

It may thrill those who maintain a Hotmail account, but the change in design and added features are unlikely to entice people to ditch their Gmail accounts.

Many switched to Gmail because of improved stability, larger free storage space, and an ability to send large attachments as well as an excellent search function. While Microsoft attempted to emulate Google's improvements it was too little too late for Hotmail. For many it has already "lost its cool" [Guardian]. and some suggest it might just launch "a gold rush for jokers and spammers" [Register]. The roll out of the service has not been entirely smooth and there have already been problems for some Windows Phone users [CNET].

Google betters chat

Just as Microsoft publicised its planned changes, Google also announced in a blogpost changes and improvement to Gmail which will incorporate Hangouts in its web-based email client [cbronline]

This sounded like good news for Google users, though there have been complaints over the past few weeks concerning the search giants venture into the tablet market.

Nexus 7 issues

There have been a number of complaints surrounding the build quality of the new Nexus 7 with some saying there were touch screen issues and other faults [Guardian]. It is unclear how many devices have been affected. There have also been issues concerning supply and demand, with Google briefly stopping sales of the 16Gb version of the device via its Play store.

And problems may not stop there for those trying to get their hands on one. While Apple are yet to launch any lawsuit against Asus or Google over the Nexus 7, Nokia have already hinted at possible copyright infringements [AppleInsider]. The war between the tech giants is far from over.

tvnewswatch, London, UK

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