Apple's New Pinch-To-Zoom Monopoly

A blog about business and economics.
Aug. 25 2012 2:51 PM

Apple's New Pinch-To-Zoom Monopoly Is Bad News

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New gadgets, no more pinching to zoom.

Photo by KAZUHIRO NOGI/AFP/GettyImages

Since it came out on a Friday afternoon, I was only able to comment briefly on the Apple v Samsung verdict yesterday but I was able to read some pushback on Twitter against my view that Apple's win is a loss for consumers. 

To look specifically at what I'm unhappy about, the jury upheld several Apple patents which amount to saying that if there are now-standard elements of touchscreen user interfaces that Apple did first in iOS now only iOS can use them. Another aspect of the case relates to the allegation that Samsung products have been violating Apple's "trade dress" by basically looking too much like iPhones. That I'm less concerned about. What troubles me is the verdict upholding the US Patent and Trademark Office's decision to say that, for example, Apple should have a legal monopoly on the pinch-to-zoom feature which I think is a great example of how the modern-day patent system has gone awry.

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Think about cars and you'll see that, of course, lots of different companies make cars. But they all have some very similar user interface elements. In particular, there's a steering wheel that you turn left and right to shift the wheels and there's a gas pedal and brakes that you hit with your right foot. Imagine if the way the automobile industry worked was that each car maker had to devise a unique user interface. So maybe GM cars would have a steering wheel, but Toyotas would have a joystick, and Honda you would steer with your feet and use your hands to control the gas and brakes.

In some sense there'd be "more innovation" in this world since there'd be this kind of arbitrary proliferation of user interfaces. But in a more important sense there'd be less competition, since there are only so many viable ways for a person to interact with a car and a lot of those ways suck. You'd have few new entrants, and those entrants would be hobbled from the get-go. Meanwhile, UI proliferation would make it much harder for people to switch car brands or launch car rental companies since with each brand reinventing the steering wheel you'd constantly need to be learning to drive again.

Matthew Yglesias is the executive editor of Vox and author of The Rent Is Too Damn High.