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Apple Will Never Stop These Copycat iPhones

Apple's victory against alleged patent infringer Samsung may help keep Steve Jobs' vicious vision inside Apple, but keeping its treasure hidden away will only work for Apple as long as consumers put a premium on its designs. As things stand, Apple is...
August 30, 2012, 5:30pm

Apple’s victory against alleged patent infringer Samsung may help keep Steve Jobs’ vicious vision inside Apple, but keeping its treasure hidden away will only work for Apple as long as consumers put a premium on its designs. As things stand, Apple is the sole distributor of the second most popular smartphone operating platform, with over thirty percent of the market. Google, on the other hand, distributes its Android OS across a range of handset makers, and Android has used its syndicated distribution to put its system into the hands of more than half of smartphone users. Whereas Apple guards its operating system inside a fortress of intellectual property enforcement, Android is open source. Android’s openness, which leaves it vulnerable to copying and hacking and adaptation, could turn out to be its greatest strength.

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As things stand, Android leads the pack, with Apple hanging back in second. That said, Android gets into consumer hands through an array of mobile devices. With Apple, there’s only the iPhone and the iPad. Google is like a pack of hyenas and Apple is the lone water buffalo. Apple is using ironclad patent protections and aggressive legal tactics to protect itself against the Android interlopers. A glance at the piracy policy on Apple’s website shows how seriously the company takes the protection of its intellectual property. The page declares “The illegal copying of software programs is a crime!” That exclamation point is Apple’s own. Apple works closely with at least one special police unit with ties to federal agents, and when an inept burglar stumbled into Steve Jobs’s home and ambled off with the deceased’s iPad, the REACT team was able to catch the thief through the IP address. The jury in the Apple vs. Samsung case upheld claims that Samsung was copying Apple’s designs, and it appears for the moment that Apple is winning the battle to protect its position as the world’s most recognizable and desirable mobile device.

But as the company’s lawyers were celebrating the jury’s decision to slap Samsung with hefty damages for patent violations, folks outside the reach of U.S. courts continued to sell counterfeit Apple products. From Shenzhen to Dallas to London to Venice, global networks of Apple bootleggers are selling an untold number of knockoff iPhones and iPads. Cnet reports

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Some experts estimate that up to 10 percent of technology products worldwide, or roughly $100 billion worth of technology product sales each year, are for counterfeit or fake products. Many of these products make their way into the U.S. market through online marketplaces, like eBay or Craigslist.

What has long been the province of Beijing electronics markets is edging closer to Cupertino. In February, the NYPD seized a hoard of shanzhai istuff from a store on West 28th Street in Manhattan, where they found what they described as one of the larger inventories of fake Apple electronics ever seen on the East Coast. Apple’s enforcement agents, who assisted police in identifying the 436 iPhones, 21 iPads and 128 iPods, could take only small comfort as the worldwide trend of ripping off the iconic brand continues.

While Americans, beset by a litany of financial hardships, may be outraged that the crown jewel of their digital economy is vulnerable to outright theft, people in other countries take delight in unpacking and advertising their cheaper versions of the world’s luxury electronics.

This video is an epic journey into the soul of the counterfeit iPhone. “Of course, it is made in China,” says the narrator. Its 9.3 millimeter thickness conforms to that of the authentic iPhone 4. And then, around a minute in, the snake pops out of the can. A “specially modified Android system” makes for an almost convincing clone of the iOS.

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The iPhone 5 isn’t coming to stores in the U.S. until September 21st but the fake version is already taking flight in China, with what appear to be newspaper ads featuring Steve Jobs making an almost fascist gesture.

The start-up chime suggests an early ’90’s computer game soundtrack; the stylus suggest brazen Chinese hackery. The rapid movements across the screen look hypnotizing.

What’s in the box? Narcotics? A severed hand? It’s two imitation iPads. In the comments this user explains that he has three available for sale. This is Android again dressed up like iOS.

It’s unlikely anyone could really pass one of these janky copycats off as real Apple products. But as Apple leverages its vast resources and clout to enlist the help of the U.S. federal courts to protect its corner of the smartphone and tablet market, the rash of brazen counterfeits on the black market is a sign of something more corrosive to the leviathan of Cupertino than any legal multinational handset manufacturer. In places beyond the reach of U.S. courts, avid mobile users are taking the prettiest parts of Apple’s legendary look while taking advantage of Android’s open source capabilities. People like the look of Apple, but on the inside, they prefer to do what they want, at prices they can afford.

Meanwhile, Apple can keep up the global piracy whac-a-mole, but enterprising black market designers will continue to copycat, in ways that no court will be able to fully stop. Instead of fulminating about theft, perhaps Apple should be happy about this flattery. Rather than suing other companies who have imitated their design, perhaps Apple should be investing its energies into designs that blow past the conventions that now define mobile phones: a monolithic rectangular design and a 2 dimensional grid for dragging and touching. That would keep the bootleggers interested and busy, spreading the Apple meme. Rather than, for instance, ripping off Samsungs.