|Photo by Brett Jordan via Flicker|
Many (most?) technology patents describe individual features of an entire system, or ecology of innovation. For example, consider a patent to recognize phone numbers in emails and to launch a dialer when the number is selected. This patent by itself is not that interesting. It is only when the invention is embedded in a smartphone or other system that includes email and telephone calling that there is utility to this patent. In contrast, consider a patent for a novel drug. This patent covers the drug in its entirety and no other inventions are required to produce the drug.
Since Apple is protecting a feature, and not the entire smartphone concept, competitors are free to develop their own unique features in the smartphone space. It is only a matter of time before someone else has a patent that limits Apple's ability to offer the complete feature experience that consumers desire. At this point, their will only be two choices. Either each competitor will offer partially crippled products, or companies will cross-license each other's patent portfolios.
The cross-licensing approach has been standard for many years in the technology field. Apple, seemingly has a time-to-market advantage because of its pioneering work in smartphones. However, one wonders about the previous work of Palm/Treo, Windows Mobile, Nokia and RIM -- Did these companies not apply for patents for their early work, or is it just that they have yet to assert their rights? Irrespective of any prior claims, it is only a matter of time before the newer players build up portfolios of their own.
At this point, the sporadic counter-suits will become a flood and I wouldn't be surprised to see talks of import restrictions shift to talks of cross-licensing. Therefore, and immediate wins are likely to be of a short-term nature.