Are the Patent Wars Making Android Better?

Published on Author Eli Fennell

Patents are a pain.  In some industries they lead to better products, by protecting the innovator long enough to recoup the costs of developing and marketing the product.  Pharmaceuticals, for example, often require around a decade just to go from early development through animal and human testing and eventually approval.

In software, patents are just a pain; there is no way, realistically, that bounce back scrolling or pinch to zoom is worth protecting for two decades.  Their development may be worth _some_ protection, maybe 1 to 3 years based on the costs of development, marketing, and just being the one to take the risk on a product that might have flopped.  Let’s be honest, though… you don’t test a software patent on lab rats, or need strict government approval to start selling them.
On the other hand, the broken patent system does present opportunities for companies to think outside the box.  When Apple gets an injunction against an Android OEM, it is often the job of the OEM to work around that patent, and unfortunately the result often feels like a workaround, diminishing the user experience.
Google, on the other hand, tries to address these issues as best possible with each new version of Android, protecting themselves and their partners, and making life easier on those same partners.  And it’s clear they put quite a bit of care and effort into those issues.  They don’t look at a patent they need to avoid and simply think, “How do we get around this?”  They do what an innovative company should do: they accept that the one solution may be forbidden, but that there are probably other ways of solving the same problem just as well.
Here are three ways in which, I believe, Google has actually improved Android by being forced to find new alternatives:
1) Edge Glow – This is Google’s answer to Apple’s bounce back patent.  Actually, though, Google cribbed this approach from Cyanogenmod, the most popular custom ROM for Android.  As a relatively small project, developed by passionate volunteers, they have good reason to steer clear of Apple patents unless and until Google can indemnify them.  Instead of over scrolling and bouncing back, edge glow lets you know you can’t scroll any further with a glow effect that expands if you continue trying to scroll.  Whether one or the other is better is a matter of taste; I happen to prefer edge glow.  It’s visually soothing, whereas the rubber banding effect of iOS seems rather jarring to me.  On the home screen, the edge glow also gives a  futuristic feeling of navigating through something like a holographic cube.
2) Diverse Icon Shapes – Again this is a matter of taste, but where iOS uses uniformly square icons with rounded corners, stock Android has icons in a variety of shapes.  I prefer diversity to conformity, and find that a variety of shapes gives more visual differentiation between different apps, so they can more easily be distinguished “at a glance”.
3) The New App Drawer – The iOS homescreen, and Android’s old app drawer, were visually similar.  This became an issue in the Apple v. Samsung trial, although it didn’t help that Samsung’s TouchWiz icons are more similar to iOS’s, and that Samsung used the app drawer instead of the home screen in some of their advertising.
Google changed the app drawer in version 3.0 so that now, instead of scrolling up and down through the list of icons, it’s more like a rolodex of app “cards” that pop up and fade back down as you swipe left and right through the different pages.  They also added widgets to the app drawer, which once you get used to it makes a lot of sense.  I could easily imagine Google reinventing the home screens for Android, as well, following the same approach.  This would give Android a more uniform “look and feel” based around “cards”, much as Windows Phone is based around tiles.  This is still somewhat a matter of taste, but there are also obvious advantages, at least for the app drawer, for using this “rolodex” approach.
It’s clear by now that the easiest path for Google to take with Android is the path of least resistance, which also happens to be the road less traveled (as the poem goes).  As a company it has ample talent to make a brilliant operating system that is kissing cousin at best to its rivals, and still stay on top of the mobile market globally.  “Playing it safe” by taking some inspiration from iOS might once have made sense, but playing it safe with your operating system can also stifle innovation, as it did in the case of Microsoft.
In addition, from a legal point of view, working around patents successfully makes them instantly less valuable, which will help with negotitions when, as will inevitably happen, the two sides settle over their patent differences.
Are there any other ways you can think of that the patent war has actually improved Android?

I love technology and how it changes our lives. There’s something almost spiritual about how new technologies connect and empower us. And it’s really cool, too.