iPhone shows Jobs’ brass cojones – what about Apple TV?

Permit me this one paragraph timeline. Back in 2000, Cisco obtained the iPhone trademark by buying a company that had been using it since 1996. Enough time passed that virtually everyone forgot about Cisco’s rights to the name. Meanwhile, Apple was rumored to be working on a cell phone, which everyone by default nicknamed iPhone. The rumors continued – for so long that Cisco’s trademark may have expired for lack of use. Then, in late 2006, Cisco came out with a VoIP phone called iPhone, and let Apple know that it would need permission to use the name. Almost immediately thereafter, Apple announced its cell phone, also called iPhone, without Cisco’s permission, claiming that the two products were different enough to both use the same name. Cisco sued. Apple publicly laughed off the suit. Then, yesterday, the companies settled, agreeing to both use the name. Apple won, and Cisco lost, at least, as far as we know.

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Why the timeline? It illustrates more fully a point that has been kicking around in my head since the Apple/Cisco settlement was announced: when Apple decides that it really wants something, like a trademark, it tends to make that something happen even if history isn’t on its side. There’s very little doubt that an Apple iPhone wasn’t much more than a faint possibility in Steve Jobs’ mind back in 1996. Or 2000, or even most of 2004. In January, 2007, he said that the iPhone had been in development for around two years – way after Cisco claimed the trademark. Yet he took the stage at Macworld, debuted the product, and said it was named “iPhone.” Subsequent applause aside, that was said in a way that didn’t suggest that the name was changing. Period. And when push came to shove, it didn’t.


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Contrast this with the It’s Showtime event in September, 2006. There, Jobs cautiously pre-announced a product tentatively named iTV, apparently the company’s preferred moniker, but he disclaimed its permanence since the lawyers hadn’t yet approved it. Why? There were, of course, Elgato’s EyeTV software package for the Macintosh, and international TV stations with the same iTV name, but no same-named device to connect to a television with these features. Surely, if Apple wanted the iTV name, it could have fought for it. But months later, on the same stage where iPhone was about to be announced, Jobs redubbed iTV “Apple TV,” and that was it. The cautious introduction had given way to a name change.


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What was the difference between the bold Apple – proclaimer of iPhone – and the cautious Apple, disclaimer of iTV? Clearly it wasn’t the absence of a legal threat in iPhone’s case: according to numerous reports, Cisco had sent an agreement for Apple to sign prior to the Expo, and expected it to be signed before an iPhone was announced. And I’d have to guess that it wasn’t because Cisco was considered a pushover relative to the potential iTV trademark holders: Cisco’s a big company, was obviously willing to sue, and could possibly have won – and won big.

Perhaps it was the importance of the product. Even though Apple has started marketing Apple TV with a bold claim that it’s the DVD player of the 21st century, there hasn’t been any advance prediction of 10 million units sold in the first year and a half, as with iPhone, which appears to be a much more critical device for the company. My guess is that Apple felt it was worth fighting over and possibly paying for the iPhone name, but not for iTV.

Or perhaps it was that EyeTV – a piece of software with certain features similar to Apple TV – was just too close of a match, whereas the two iPhones were fundamentally different types of products. I’m not sure that I totally buy this one: the key functional difference (one transmits voice over the Internet and the other transmits voice over a cell network and data over the Internet) might be lost on a judge or jury. That said, there might have been another trademark Apple was more concerned about than Elgato’s.


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Whatever the reason, my feeling is that there’s an interesting story here that won’t even appear as a footnote in the history books about iPhone: Apple pre-announced a product six months in advance, gave it a name to which it had no prior rights, and still managed to secure those rights after a lawsuit was filed. Whether there was a huge, confidential cash settlement, a realization by Cisco that it wouldn’t prevail in a suit, or some combination of factors, I’m not sure. But I do know one thing: Steve Jobs has brass cojones. And getting kicked in them by a threatened or actual lawsuit isn’t enough to stop him from charging forward – a position you need to be both bold and well-backed financially to pull off. When you consider the alternatives – a product having been announced initially with a different, less appropriate name, or a press release signaling that Apple had given up the iPhone name under threat from Cisco – that’s seriously impressive stuff. Readers, your thoughts?