With Apple V. Samsung Verdict, Innovation Wins

A high-profile lawsuit may cause two giant tech firms (and others) to make bold design and engineering decisions.

The Samsung v. Apple court case has, at least for the most critical part, been decided. With but a few details, the jury came down on Apple's side, finding Samsung guilty, willfully, of copying Apple's technology and designs. It's been high-profile, bitter, sneaky, fascinating, snarky, and sometimes downright boring. Lawyers and judges have a few matters like punitive injunctions to work through. And too many people are already convinced there will be negative repercussions.

But ultimately its aftermath might be good for the tech world and for digital product consumers the world over. In the cold light of day, and in design offices and far from the courtroom, it may even spur dramatic innovations in mobile tech.

Design

Think about it: Apple's accused Samsung of slavishly copying its external product design and the look and feel of how the product works in user's hands. Superficially, it's hard to argue with some of this position. Samsung's phones before the iPhone were simply not in its class, and owed more to the past than the future (even the F700 which Samsung was, slightly dishonestly, trying to suggest as prior art for a slab-like smartphone design). It even went as far as aping Apple's innovative cubic mains charger and using a very 30-pin iPod connector-like system in its Galaxy tablets, when it used microUSB elsewhere. The one juror who's spoken out so far has even mentioned this situation.

Samsung said Apple's designs are "obvious" and that its a shame to be arguing over plain old rectangles. There's some truth to this, although Samsung misses out on the fact that sometimes it takes a genius to point out the obvious and also that sometimes design, in the best Dieter Rams mode, is all about simplifying, and taking details away.

Patents

On the patent side of the coin, Samsung said Apple was abusing its core smartphone and tablet patents, some of which are about the actual electonic systems that make everything tick. A bunch of these patents fall under FRAND regulations, because without fair access to them Samsung would be effectively hobbling the growth of a free and competetive phone market—a market that's becoming more important for everyday life.

Apple argued that Samsung is infringing some of its patents that relate to the way iOS devices work—the seemingly subtle and yet actually very powerful tweaks, finesses and design philosophies that really do make iOS devices a delightfully intuitive experience for the user. Many of them are new, and wouldn't have made sense in a pre-touchscreen smartphone/tablet environment. They're pushing the leading edge of natural user interface design forward, and having knock-on effects for many other of our modern gadgets.

Both firms tried to get some of each other's patents invalidated in the ongoing case, but the jury decided that that simply wasn't true.

What Happens Next

In some sense it doesn't matter that Samsung's lost, and may owe Apple billions and face import restrictions on some of its products. Yes, if it all goes badly for Samsung, it'll feel the pain (at least a little—its billions in global revenues will help soften the blow). But the more important point is that both parties are now incentivized to behave differently. One can even argue that they're now predisposed to innovate like they've never done before.

Apple—which isn't evil no matter how some may think—may press on with its smartphone and tablet UI innovation in an effort to truly distinguish the look and feel of its products in an ever-busier market, conscious that Samsung is nipping at its heels. iOS is getting a little long in the tooth, and now may be the perfect time to spend company time transforming it into the next generation of smartphone OS's.

Apple may also feel empowered to try some very radical external design changes. It sounds a little strange saying this when Apple's won big points in the California lawsuit on the strength of its iPhone design. But you could say the lawsuit draws a bold line under the iPhone's look and feel, marking it as distinct and special. That line feels like a conclusion, and could suggest it's time to make the next radical (rather than evolutionary) design step.

This is something Apple's done often before, from the first iMac to the iPhone and the MacBook Air. Tim Cook and Jony Ive could even decide that its time to radically reimagine the entire market, and come up with yet another classic mobile device that establishes its a new market (iGlasses to outsmart Google at its own game?).

Separately, Samsung may be incentivised to dance far away from Apple's reference designs. If it wants to steer clear of future lawsuits, the firm's smartphone designers may have to create some very novel devices that definitely appeal to consumers while standing out thanks to their visual appeal.

In terms of smartphone technology, either in terms of hardware or software, Samsung could also feel pressure to push the envelope. It has long-standing manufacturing experience and it's probably conscious that its existing FRAND patents aren't going to be huge money-spinners for ever. The Korean firm may even sense that a radical UI make-over is worthwhile, now that the "looks like an iPhone" halo effect is very tarnished. That could see Samsung's Android-cored TouchWiz user interface taken in some very unexpected directions.

It's not just Samsung either. All of Apple's smartphone peers, be they Android or Windows Phone makers, may feel the need to keep very clear of the look, feel and functionality of Apple gear. They do want to stay in business, you see.

Finally, in terms of the legal core of the suit itself it's even possible Samsung and Apple may agree with the position of Google's public policy director Pablo Chaves, and decide that the current patent system (particularly in terms of software) is critically broken—and actually is counter-productive for encouraging innovation. Even Apple's execs will be aware that despite "winning" this suit, there's an unavoidable negative air surrounding a case like this. And to avoid similar cases happening in the future, one solution would be to change the patent system itself. Lobbying does work, and these firms have deep pockets.

Call us over-ly optimistic if you will, but this is a very high-profile case between some of the biggest companies in the world. The overall outcome, if it does spur innovative thinking, may be great for us as consumer. Think of the weird and wonderful devices that we'll get to see as both Apple and Samsung try to outsmart each other and out-design each other in the future.

[Image: Flickr user ljrmike]

Chat about this news with Kit Eaton on Twitter and Fast Company too.

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55 Comments

  • Roman

    Do I need to remember someone what happened last year, the same year Apple started this lawsuit, with Greg Hughes, a college student? 
    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/tec...

    Do I need to remember someone where the "pinch to zoom" REALLY came from? (Jeff Han presenting to TED his multitouch sensor in 2006 [1 year before the first iPhone])? http://www.ted.com/talks/jeff_...
    Listen to Han's words: "The interface just disappears here". Yes it takes a genius to point out the obvious, the beauty of simplicity. But the iPhone design is a direct consequence of the user interaction with a multitouch sensor, NOT a genius's innovation. It's like copying the concept of the "mouse" from some unknown engineer and then patent the act of "clicking".

    Apple may not be evil, but HOW DO THEY DARE to sue someone for an idea they obviously copied first? 
    I didn't read anywhere that Greg Hughes or Jeff Han received a single penny from Apple. 

    They may not be evil, but of all the big corporations out there, they are the most blatant of the hypocrites. 

  • Tabish

    I think siblings of Alexander Graham Bell can sue all the phone companies in the world as well as governments. The idea of "Phone" wouldn't exits without Graham Bell hence he should have copyright for the very basic idea of "Phone". All the great inventions and innovations are inspired by another, it's a chain of human learning and growth. Whatever we are learning today is told or written by someone else. Americans know the game of suing, they can sue if you snore loud or fart.

    Steve was a greedy person, if you look at the iPhone strategies carefully, it is more towards making you handicap than giving a "product for all". Even with $50 Chinese phone you can pair your phone via Bluetooth with any other models but with iPhone you can not. And people who own iPhone, satisfy their ego by giving some security reasons. 

    Apple products are made for the people who have same mental wavelength what Steve had. It is for the people with full of ego and greed.

    It's a win of greed, nothing more than that.
     

  • François Reeves

    Courts, lawyers and lawmakers provide services, not products. The whole point when we start enforcing patents is that we feel as a company that the competition is making strides and advancements that threaten market share. Please, it has nothing to do with intellectual property. The biggest losers in this dispute are consumers who are caught in ecosystems such as Apple, Google, Microsoft and Oracle. By allowing such companies to grow and protect (i.e. close) their markets we are limiting innovation and creativity. In the older economy we use to dismantle monopolies by law. In the virtual world we seem to loose sight of threats that arise from allowing companies to dominate markets in such fashion.
    It is the least path of effort to settle in complacency and remain unchallenged when you have locked device, software and content so successfully. 

    Don't reply that R&D has a cost because it is financed by consumers against their freedom of choice! A paradox whereby every one looses. It is a sad day for free markets.

  • Ray Tuhi

    Putting curves or rounding the edge of a product is NOT new or innovative, only a natural progression for the product. 

    Rounding or curves have been on products for many years in the engineering, car manufacturing, technology, housing and other sectors. Look at cars from square shapes to the shapes of today, you don't see car manufacturers suing one another, maybe they should!!! What of the designs of drinking bottles, lawn mowers, chain saws and the many other products out there who share the same design, I bet if this verdict stays, many companies will be dusting of patents, copyright and trademarks using a microscope. The verdict is so Wrong in so many ways. The design was so predictable and if they Jury can't see it, they are blinded. 

    Saying the design is new is a lot of bull_ _ _ t. Any design kid in a school, college or university would have come up placing curves/rounding on the iPad, Tablets and many other products out there. 

  • Newrimifesuoy

    Sir, you seem to be a lawyer, so as a technologist I will clarify the situation for you: this is a very harsh blow to technology and technical innovation and it makes (ironic) sense that this blow is dealt in an American court at the end of the American Empire. Taking into account your siege of the British financial district in London by the lawyers of your state, it is clear that American "innovation" is only done in courts and in banks. You have totally lost your way in technology and technical innovations and the only way to compete with us is through cheating in court: something you have made into an art form (remember O.J. Simpson?).
    To judge such a complex technical product on "design" and "layout" alone and virtually totally ignore the inside (i.e. the technology) is very shallow and unfair to these two fantastic product lines. These are neither cars nor airplanes, where the smallest layout design issue can affect the aerodynamic performance of the car! Neither are these handbags nor T-shirts, where the amount of "swag" will decide its market value. Yes, the layout plays a (minor) role with the majority of non-shallow people (i.e. non-US citizens). But a Smart phone is incredible more than its casing and to judge this whole cased based on the "external design and layout" is very typical of American society: You are judging smart phones like hand bags and the case could rather be called Gucci against Prada for what you are concerned. O, how low the American intellect has reached? Still, "Thank you" from the rest of the world for blocking innovation. May the whole world put tariffs on your export too! 

  • Kodotheshoe

    Steve is dead. If Apples doesn't lock in their market share, they will tank just like they did before Steve came back.  They are in death roll mode. I give them 4-6 years before they are no longer relevant. 

  • T-Whiz

    It's no secret that most if not all Apple devices have Samsung components. It will be interesting to see how they might leverage this to offset these draconian punishments.

  • KKToronto

    I bet this inventor can sue all underwear manufacturers for using fabric material (instead of plastic) in their underwear design because the fabric allows the fart to pass through the underwear which could potentially filter out the authentic smell of human gas - specially brand new underwear will certainly filter and deform the original gas at some extent (I bet scientists can verify this) which means it is somewhat infringing his patent.
    http://www.google.com/patents/...

  • Fast Amir

    Guys you need to patent your bald head's as I can see crApple saying that Steve Jobs had a patent for that in 1867

  • Fast Amir

    What verdict did you really expect.
    American Court. American Dumbass Jury. American Company vs Those Chinese lookalikes.
    It was pretty obvious.
    If you look at BMW 7 Series v Lexus 400 series; dont see BMW crying 'wolf' and oh they are copying us....
    Thing with crApple is they are big enough and bad enough to sue and they will because they know they will win, because Americans will always favour American companies.
    Sad day....and obviously more monopolisation by crApple.....

    Good job we have developed a technology that crApple can't ssy is there as its already being release....www.ivitv.co

  • Dave196224

    what will be the most interesting aspect of the release of Apple's iPad mini, is the impending IP lawsuit from Samsung, claiming that Apple copied the form and function of their hardware by using a smaller screen, thereby copying Samsung.  What's sauce for the goose...

  • Mark Farnham

    I'd hate to see American Tobacco company ultimately win all the marbles when they file a claim they came up with the idea of using a man's shirt pocket as the form factor design. Maybe Proctor and Gamble can win a little for the rounded corners on soap. And I really don't know who was first on rounded corners on the folders used to hold pads of 8.5 by 11 inch paper you can flip open on your lap and write on. Maybe they all have to pay Apple for their designs from the 18th century, since they didn't get to court first. Sheesh.

  • Andrew Beatty

    Wrong.

    Even if legalistic rewards for product innovation were necessary (Apple's financial success would imply otherwise), having an abusive system of government-assigned monopolies over trivial ideas is hardly a good approach.

  • Laturb

    For the first time in 13 years I am being forced to look at alternatives to Apple products.The patent issue(s) are a backdrop, it's more that I find their products becoming seriously over-priced, and costly if the product fails.

  • Grrr8

    Huh?

    Apple products are cheaper than they have ever been!
    An Apple "Portable" in 1989 cost $6,500 in non-adjusted $. The cheapest PowerBook in 1991, the 100 cost $2,300. An iBook in 1999 cost $1,599. The original (base model) MacBook cost $1,099 in 2006.

    Now you can get an untra portable MacBook Air for $999.

    And Apple's return and warranty policies are better than most in the industry.

  • Cole Spolaric

    Apple isn't evil?  Apple does not want any competition.  They want the iPhone to be the only smartphone on the market and everyone else to be dependent on it and all of their products.  It was improving upon bad design that created competition for everyone else, and now that everyone else is pushing back with better products, Apple is having a fit.

    A patent on the look of the iPhone is just ridiculous.  The 9 jurors which probably didn't have a good understanding of the case anyways obviously missed this.  It basically means that no one can sell a smartphone that has a touchscreen and one button on the front and whose form is a rectangle with rounded corners. IMO the only patent that was even valid in the case was the bounce back feature when a user scrolled past the bottom of a page.

    "conscious that Samsung is nipping at its heels" - really - nipping, try already past Apple.  Only ppl who will tell you that the iPhone is better than an S3 are Apple fan boys.

    The author here has way to high expectations that this ruling is actually going to result in good.  All it does is stifle competition and give us less choice.

  • gregent

     hmmm.. so the people I know who have a very hard time with Android devices and are leaning toward or have already switched to an iPhone are blind and don't understand as well I suppose?

    I have always had difficulty with people who lean so far to one side or another and paint things with their own broad brush rather than objectively see all sides. In a positive and progressive manner I might add.

    Sure the author has some obvious leanings, but I certainly appreciate the positive approach to what can come of things. I'm pretty sure that the world of smart phones and tablets will not shrivel up and die due to this ruling. I'm actually very excited to see how this improves the game rather than leave it as clones of each others ideas.