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Woz warns that patent palaver will stifle startups

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Apple cofounder and number-one fanboi Steve Wozniak has warned that the current land rush for patents is going to stifle innovation and could cripple the next generation of startups.

"I care so much about the young person that has some technical knowledge and wants to start their own business," Wozniak told the Australian Financial Review. "Companies like Apple, Facebook, Twitter and Yahoo! all started by new thinkers with new ideas. Now, with this big patent situation, there are certain categories that are heavily blocked off because the big companies make sure they own it all."

Woz recounted how when it developed the Apple II, Apple had been forced to pay a $2 per computer licensing fee to RCA for the right to translate letters into pixels that could be displayed onscreen. Only a big firm with a large research budget could have examined this and filed the patent on it, but having to pay rankled Woz – and that was back when patents weren't the disruptive force they are today.

Apple is perfectly willing to play the patent game itself, as recent history has shown. But Woz gave his old company a pass on this, saying it was better than most. "Apple is the good guy on the block of all of them," he opined. "It is creating so much and is so successful and it is not just following the formulas of other companies – [Apple is] totally establishing new markets that didn't exist."

One could argue that mobile phone operating systems were doing just fine before Apple came along, and the current patent spat over Android has nothing to do with innovation, and everything to do with trying to hamstring a successful rival. Arguing in court that a rival company's tablets shouldn't look like, well, a tablet, is also hardly being the "good guy on the block" for encouraging innovation.

Apple was in a unique position, he said, because it owned the entire stack, from operating system down to its own retail arm. A company such as HP, to use his example, was making similar sorts of products as Apple, but couldn't tie them together because it doesn't own the operating system.

As for the replacement for his friend Steve Jobs, Woz said the jury was still out. It was too soon after Jobs' departure to see if Tim Cook would put his mark on the company, Woz ventured.

"It is hard to judge yet because Apple products still look like they did under Steve Jobs. Steve Jobs has stamped his mark on products that are three years in the queue," Wozniak says. "I want to see the special touches [under Cook], not just an iteration to the iPad 3." [Editor's correction "The new iPad"]. ®

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