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Tuesday, November 30, 2010

New King of the Court

No, it's not LeBron James. It's Apple Computer. Since 2008, Apple has been the most-sued company in the technology industry. It's most recent battle, being heard this week by the International Trade Commission, is against Finnish telecom giant Nokia over patents relating to the iPhone. At stake is the leadership position in the US smartphone market. Apple is trying to protect its right to import the iPhone, while keeping at bay its most powerful rivals, particularly smartphones powered by Google's Android operating system, the world's most popular smartphone software. I'm not going to go into the specifics of this particular case, or any of the dozens of lawsuits Apple has pending, rather, I'm more interested in why Apple has become the most litigious company in technology. The statistic that caught my eye was the time frame of Apple's ascent in courtroom appearances -- 2008 through today. What changed in 2008? Ah yes, the iPhone was available and was the hottest phone on the market. Prior to 2008, most of the technology patent battles happened among companies such as Intel, AMD, Microsoft, HP, Dell, Qualcomm and Oracle. But after 2008, Apple raises to the top of the heap. Apple's ubiquitous presence in the courtroom is because smartphones, and the applications that run on them, have become such essential parts of our lives. Not an hour goes by that I'm not either talking on my smartphone, sending a text, checking email or surfing the web. And who am I kidding? An hour? Try every few minutes, and I'm not alone. In the past, the battleground for our attention was on the PC, so it was natural for HP, Dell, Intel, AMD and Microsoft to sue anyone who dared venture near their turf. Today, that battleground is our iPhones, Droids, and Blackberries. Conventional wisdom in Silicon Valley has long been follow the VC money to determine the hot emerging tech market. But a corollary to that adage is watch who is suing whom to determine what market is currently hot and making money. Today that market is smartphones, and the hot company is Apple.

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