Owning the Stack

My latest essay, a general-audience piece on the IP wars in the smartphone industry, is live at Ars Technica. Meet Owning the Stack:

In the last few weeks, the smartphone industry appeared to produce more lawsuits than phones. Apple briefly managed to stop the sale of the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 in all of Europe, and is now going after the whole Galaxy line. Back Stateside, Google first complained that Microsoft and Apple were using “bogus patents” to target Android, then spent $12 billion for Motorola and its patent arsenal. These are big, high-stakes fights—and the last company left standing may walk away with control over nothing less than the smartphone market itself.

In the flood of stories about tactical filings and counter-filings, it’s easy to get lost in the details. But step back and it’s clear that the Smartphone Wars aren’t just a war of all against all; there’s an underlying logic to these disputes. Most companies are fighting to control one part of the hardware-software stack, then use that control to pry money free from the layers above them.

But the really big players—the Apples and Googles of the world—are fighting over the stack itself. Their combat arena: the global legal system.

The essay is my attempt to step back from the torrent of news stories about this lawsuit or that one, and get a long view on what legal disputes mean for the smartphone industry. All of the stories are in there, of course — they give the picture its overall shape — but I wanted to set them in some kind of meaningful context that helps us make sense of each new story as it arrives. I concluded that the industry today is converging on a few stacks: chains from network to hardware to operating system to apps. The legal plays are all about seizing a privileged place within a stack, taking control over other layers of the stack you’re in, or engaging in all-out war on a stack itself. Have a read, and let me know what you think.