Apple 2.0

Covering the business that Steve Jobs built

Apple settles "millions of colors" lawsuit

March 26, 2008: 7:19 AM ET

macbook-air-front-view.jpgWhen you're a company as high profile and as rich as Apple, you get sued for a lot things, from patent infringement (eight cases since January alone, according to Barron's) to "sexual harassments with Apple gadgets" (see here). But one suit that was widely derided as frivolous when it was filed last year has been quietly settled out of court, the Chicago Tribune reports.

The terms were not disclosed, and Apple as usual won't comment, but "settled" usually means that the company paid the plaintiffs something to make their case go away.

At issue is that pull-down menu in the Mac OS that lets users choose between 256, thousands and "millions of colors."

Here's how we reported on the case last May (link):

millions.jpg The complaint -- filed in a California superior court -- reads like a long, angry comment thread on an Apple forum, which is largely what it is.

Two MacBook owners, Fred Greaves and Dave Gately, have filed a class action lawsuit against Apple (AAPL), charging the company with deceptive advertising, misrepresentation and unfair competition over the use of the phrase "millions of colors" to describe the capability of the LCD displays in MacBook and MacBook Pro computers.

But as Charles Jade puts it in Ars Technica Infinite Loop, the legal filing tells ...

"a story ... that will sound familiar to longtime Mac users. It begins with a perceived problem, the discovery that others have this problem, a refutation by Apple of that problem, and the ensuing legal action." (link; see also Ryan Block at Engadget)

At the heart of the case is plaintiff's claim that rather than delivering 16,777,216 colors with an 8-bit LCD, Apple chose a cheaper route, delivering the illusion of millions of colors using a 6-bit LCD and dithering.

What makes the complaint sound especially familiar to longtime Mac users, is that to buttress their case, Greaves and Gately have copied and pasted long stretches of exchanges from discussion threads on apple.com support and other online fora. They tell stories of dismissive Apple geniuses telling them they are being "too picky," of off-the-street tests performed at Best Buy and Tekserve, of ordering replacement computers and being afraid to open the box, of exhausted phone support reps encouraging users to "take the refund."

"I'm so tired of dealing with Apple at this point," writes one anonymous poster, "that I don't have the energy or time to continue even though they've done everything they possibly could."

What do you do when you run into a brick wall at tech support? Greaves and Gately sued. They've requested a jury trial, which means a half dozen of their peers could be trying to sort out the kinds of meandering arguments we slog through every day. You want in on the case, which Techmeme has filed with a Netflix suit under the heading "from the who-to-root-for dept"? You can read the complaint as a PDF here or here at a mirror site.

Well, Greaves and Gately didn't get their jury trial. Their lawyer told the Tribune that they weren't able to pursue the case as a class action because it was difficult to find other people who bought Macs solely based on the "millions of colors" claim.

The plaintiffs did get the satisfaction of a hearing with Apple lawyers and a settlement -- albeit one they've agreed not to talk about. That pull-down menu, meanwhile, still says "millions."

Thanks to Daring Fireball for the tip.

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Philip Elmer-Dewitt
Philip Elmer-DeWitt
Editor, Apple 2.0, Fortune

Philip Elmer-DeWitt has been following Apple since 1982, first for Time Magazine, and now on the Web for Fortune.com.

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