Apple on smartphone competition: "if others rip off our intellectual property, we will go after them."

For those of you who weren't listening in to Apple's earnings call today, you missed a prime moment of defensiveness when Tim Cook fielded a question about how the company plans to stay competitive amidst new entries from the likes of Google and, more recently, Palm. What seemed like an answer due to end with a "we've got some great new stuff on the way" slant, Cook dovetailed into how the company views its new smartphone competition. In his words:

Q: "There are other iPhone competitors coming to the market: Android, Palm Pre. How do you think about sustaining leadership in the face of these competitors?"

A: "It's difficult to compare to products that are not yet in the market. iPhone has seen terrific rating from customers. Software is the key ingredient, and we believe that we are years ahead of our competitors. Having different screen sizes, different input methods, and different hardware makes things difficult for developers. We view iPhone as primarily a software platform, which is different from our competitors. We don't mind competition, but if others rip off our intellectual property, we will go after them."

And then the follow-up:

Q: "The Palm device seems to directly emulate the iPhone's innovative interface. Is that what you're referring to?"

A: "We don't want to refer to any specific companies, so that was a general statement. We like competition because it makes us better, but we will not stand for companies infringing on our IP."

Now, we've heard Apple sound off on its intellectual property before, but the way a somewhat innocuous question about new challengers in the mobile arena got turned into a not-so vague threat of legal action is a bit stunning. Could it be that the Pre is Apple's first real multitouch, capacitive-screen competition, and the device just happened to be co-developed by Jon Rubinstein... formerly of Apple? We're not taking any flying leaps here, but the preempted initial answer seems to suggest that the folks in Cupertino may not take every new threat so coolly.