Friday, April 06, 2012

Apple: Don Quixote de Cupertino?

Update, April 11, 2012: Bloomberg is reporting that the U.S. Justice Department filed suit this morning against Apple, Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin and Simon & Schuster for eBook price-fixing; Hachette, HarperCollins and Simon & Schuster settled with the Government.

Bloomberg reported that Apple, Penguin and Macmillan are unlikely to agree to a settlement with the U.S. Justice Department over eBook price-fixing accusations, and are preparing to go to court. The three other publishers in the case, Hachette, HarperCollins and Simon & Schuster, are said to be very close to agreeing to a settlement with the Justice Department.

Regular readers of my blog know my opinion on the subject: There's very strong evidence, even if circumstantial at this point, that the publishers imposed agency terms on all of their resellers at almost exactly the same time, including the exact same commission rate, and that all of them threatened to stop supplying eBooks to any reseller who refused to agree. Apple's precise role in the scheme isn't clear, but it's known from Steve Jobs' own words that Apple proposed the scheme to the publishers and knew that it included the part about refusing to sell eBooks to any reseller (including Amazon) that didn't agree.

Apple may believe that it didn't coordinate the actions of the publishers (or that it's covered its tracks well enough that the Justice Department can't prove that it did coordinate their actions.) It may also not want to agree to a settlement for fear of its impact on the civil price-fixing case underway in New York. However, in my opinion, Apple is taking a huge risk by not settling the case before it goes to court.

As it looks now, Hachette, HarperCollins and Simon & Schuster are close to a settlement. If they settle, they'll enter into what's called a consent decree, which doesn't require them to assume guilt for the charges. They'll be required to change their business practices, possibly pay a fine, and agree to court supervision for a limited period of time. The pain and reputational damage will be over quickly. For Apple, Penguin and Macmillan, however, their senior executives are in for months of depositions, they'll be required to provide many thousands of documents as part of the discovery process, and the court trials and appeals will likely take years to play out.

In addition, the Justice Department will be able to compel Hachette, HarperCollins and Simon & Schuster to testify against the other three companies. They'll have immunity as a result of their settlement, and they'll have no reason to protect their competitors or Apple. This is a standard part of most price-fixing cases: One or more defendants cut early deals with the Justice Department and gain immunity, and then they provide evidence against the other players in the price-fixing scheme.

The worst possible outcome for Apple would be for it to lose in court, even if it eventually wins on appeal. All they have to do is look at Microsoft to witness the damage that could be done. That case was eventually settled with a consent decree, but Microsoft was under court supervision for ten years. The company could no longer pursue the aggressive tactics that it had used in the past to suppress competition. Most importantly, it became a convicted monopolist, which changed both the public's perception of the company and the stakes for any future litigation. (When Bill Gates eventually passes away, stories about his philanthropy will have to share time with the videos of his depositions.) The press was no longer afraid of retaliation by Microsoft's public relations department for running negative stories, and Microsoft lost control of its messages.

Apple is unafraid of litigation, as witness its myriad lawsuits against Android licensees. In Walter Isaacson's biography, Steve Jobs clearly saw Android as not only a theft of Apple's intellectual property by Google, but a personal betrayal by Google Chairman Eric Schmidt, who served on Apple's board of directors for years. Jobs swore that he would spend Apple's entire cash horde, if necessary, waging "thermonuclear war" on Google and Android.

Unfortunately for Apple, its cases against Samsung, HTC and Motorola have been far from the "slam-dunks" that Jobs thought they would be. Apple has estranged perhaps the most important component supplier for its mobile products, Samsung, and it's being forced to bring alternative vendors up to its quality and deliverability standards. For example, Apple had planned to launch the new iPad with three LCD vendors, LG, Samsung and Sharp, but only Samsung was able to meet Apple's quality requirements and ship in the necessary quantities in time for the launch. In addition, some of Apple's own patents are being challenged and could be invalidated.

Apple, like Don Quixote in Cervantes' novel, enjoys its battles. Unlike Quixote, however, Apple's opponents fight back, and are likely to hurt Apple much more than Apple hurts them.
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