Apple vs. Samsung: It’s Thermonuclear War

Apple co-founder Steve Jobs once famously declared “thermonuclear war” on Google Android, swearing to his biographer Walter Isaacson that he would spend his dying breath and “every penny” of Apple’s considerable fortune to wipe the mobile operating system off the face of the earth.

Apple CEO Tim Cook, on the other hand, has never displayed his predecessor’s white-hot fury over Android. “I highly prefer to settle,” he told analysts and media on an earnings call in 2012, after suggesting that he hated litigation.

But Cook could be feeling a bit of that good ol’ Steve Jobs vehemence after the U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC) recently ruled in favor of Samsung, which is engaged with Apple in numerous patent lawsuits around the globe. “The Commission has determined that Samsung has proven that the accused iPhone 4 (AT&T models); iPhone 3GS (AT&T models); iPhone 3 (AT&T models); iPad 3G (AT&T models); and iPad 2 3G (AT&T models) infringe the asserted claims of [U.S. Patent No. 7,706,348],” the regulatory body wrote in a June 4 notice (PDF), adding that the appropriate response is “a limited exclusion order and a cease and desist order” that prohibits Apple from importing those devices into the United States.

That ban on Apple imports will now undergo a 60-day review period; according to Bloomberg, President Obama has the ability to overturn such a ban “on public-policy grounds,” although such a move is apparently rare. Although the devices cited by the ITC are years old, the iPhone 4 (which is free with two-year contract in the United States) remains a strong bestseller.

Samsung’s victory is something of an apocalyptic tit-for-tat: In 2012, a California court ordered it to pay Apple $1 billion for intellectual-property violations. (That award has subsequently been cut by several hundred million.)

Samsung’s line of Galaxy tablets and smartphones have made it the world’s largest Android manufacturer, eclipsing a variety of other manufacturers such as HTC and Motorola. The prominence, combined with its willingness to fight battles out in court, has transformed the company into one of Apple’s biggest rivals.

Some analysts characterized the decision as a surprise. “I can’t believe that the ITC has completely thrown out Apple’s FRAND defense (‘[t]he Commission has determined that Samsung’s FRAND declarations do not preclude [import bans]’),” patent expert Florian Mueller wrote in a June 4 posting on his FOSS Patents blog, “taking a position that is fundamentally inconsistent not only with how U.S. federal courts have recently adjudged SEP-based injunction requests (1, 2) but also with opinions expressed by antitrust regulators and, especially, U.S. lawmakers.”

However this particular case turns out—again, President Obama could very well strike down the ITC’s decision, and Apple plans to appeal—the battles between Samsung and Apple will continue in Asia, the European Union, and the United States. With each victory and defeat, the stakes and legal fees get higher, and the relations between the two companies more toxic. There’s no end in sight. The thermonuclear war is well underway.


Image: Pasko Maksim/