The seven-year-long smartphone patent battle between Apple and Samsung is finally over. It ended without ceremony, with a confidential settlement likely signed in the banal office of a lawyer. The same banality has come to define the nearly decade-old legal fight over the originator of the smartphone. That’s because smartphones are now a ubiquitous commodity product–and there are only so many ways to design a glass and metal sandwich with touchable icons on it. Both consumer technology, and consumers themselves, have moved on.
To recap: Back in 2010, Steve Jobs launched a global thermonuclear war against Google and its Android armies. Apple sued HTC–a proxy of Google–for blatantly copying his creation, the iPhone. In April 2011, Apple sued Samsung, claiming that the company was copying everything it had created, from industrial design to interface designs like the slide-to-unlock bar. In August 2012, Apple won a $1 billion verdict against Samsung, a judgment that likely prompted HTC to settle with Apple in November 2012, agreeing to an Apple patent licensing agreement. Nonetheless, an undeterred Samsung appealed all the way up to the Supreme Court, which returned the lawsuit to a lower court for retrial. A May 2018 ruling in favor of the Cupertino company, awarding it $539 million, was met with an appeal by Samsung. This week, both parties announced that they had reached a settlement under “undisclosed terms.”
The response to the end of the legal battle, in general, has been a resounding “meh.” (My personal settlement terms with this case include a clause of “I don’t really care.”) Indeed, Samsung, Google, and other smartphone makers probably blatantly copied plenty of technical and design work from Apple–because Apple created the first smartphone that changed the industry and the world. The hardware, the packaging, the user experience, and a lot of the technology that Apple introduced in the very first years of the iPhone were reproduced by a whole industry. In the past, Apple argued that its legal battle was all about pride and recognizing creativity, rather than the money (after all, $539 million is a relatively minuscule amount for a company that earned $61 billion in the last quarter). Considering the world has moved on in the years since the dawn of the smartphone age, it’s only logical that the company eventually recognized that a successful judgment to that end probably wasn’t worth the trouble.
The truth is that the provenance of smartphone design hasn’t mattered for a very long time. The iPhone 4 was the last major leap forward from the original iPhone. Since then, we’ve watched years of cross-copying and iterating from every hardware manufacturer. Where we can expect to see innovative design is in software–and in particular, how tech companies are embedding AI in their products (even if it’s largely been through voice assistants that don’t seem all that smart, for now). Meanwhile, the technology underlying all smartphones will keep iteratively evolving, with faster processors and cameras that are incrementally better than the previous model. Just like computers did before smartphones. Or fridges. Or cars. Or any other invention that changed the world.
The story of design innovation, and the process of commoditization amongst competitors, has repeated itself again and again through history–and no number of lawsuits will ever stop that.