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.

With Apple V. Samsung Verdict, Innovation Wins

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.


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.


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]

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About the author

I'm covering the science/tech/generally-exciting-and-innovative beat for Fast Company. Follow me on Twitter, or Google+ and you'll hear tons of interesting stuff, I promise. I've also got a PhD, and worked in such roles as professional scientist and theater technician...thankfully avoiding jobs like bodyguard and chicken shed-cleaner (bonus points if you get that reference!)