Apple and Samsung are fighting it out over patents. Is anyone in the right?
Two tech giants have finally taken the gloves off, and are engaged in a full-scale patent war. Apple has accused Samsung of violating several of its design patents for the shape and form of smartphones, and one functional software patent regarding scrolling. Ars Technica has been covering this lawsuit in great detail, but for our readers, it might help to have a more distilled view of the situation.
Basically, Apple is arguing that Samsung, after seeing the revolutionary design of the iPhone, decided to aggressively compete any way they could, including through blatantly copying their designs. Apple claims that Samsung intentionally made their newest smartphones mimic the iPhone and the iPhone experience, violating several design patents and causing confusion among consumers. According to Apple, this has caused $2.75 billion in damages.
In response, besides mounting a defense against these patent violation accusations, Sony has a counterclaim against Apple. They allege that Apple has violated several of their patents related to wireless data technology, and are trying to use that as leverage either for a settlement or to sway the court.
Does Apple have a point?
There’s no denying that smartphones have begun to trend towards being rectangular shapes with rounded corners with big screens. The question is really more complicated than that: is this a logical conclusion for smartphone designers to get to, and if it isn’t, did Apple get there on its own? I’m not a product designer, but it’s really hard for me to imagine a phone that isn’t at least vaguely rectangular, and with the push away from physical keyboards, wouldn’t a screen that stretches across the entire device make sense? It looks like this can be argued either way; I know which way I lean, but I’m not on that jury.
The other major argument that Apple is making concerns the iconography and design of the software. According to them, Samsung executives had a meeting about the way the icons on their devices look. The response was nearly unanimous – Apple’s icons were way better. Changes were made, things looked a bit more like Apple, and this supposedly proves that Samsung simply copied Apple’s winning formula. Of course, none of the evidence Apple has procured explicitly says that they should steal Apple’s designs, or even that they should look more similar. They just said that they needed to look different.
Does Samsung have a point?
Samsung’s biggest and most potentially effective defense is that Apple didn’t necessarily come up with the ideas first. According to Samsung, the base mockups for the iPhone were actually based on designs by Sony, and some sketches and models created by Apple even had the Sony logo on them. I haven’t heard a good response to this allegation from Apple yet.
Additionally, Samsung is trying to argue that Apple’s internal communications themselves indicate that they knew their ideas weren’t novel. They claim that during the marketing campaigns for the iPhone, Apple discussed how they couldn’t advertise that they were the first to come up with these ideas, as they knew that wasn’t true. I haven’t seen concrete evidence that these memos exist as of today, but this could be damning to Apple if true.
If Apple wins, what might this lead to?
Why is Apple targeting Samsung? Some might say that it’s because it’s arguably the most successful Android manufacturer so far, but I think it’s more of a proxy war with Google. If Apple is able to successfully argue that the iconography and user experience in Samsung’s devices, which is a feature of Android, violated their design patents, there’s nothing stopping them from taking this up with their biggest competitor. Regardless of who’s right in that situation, it’s bad for competition, which leads to less consumer choice and less innovation.
Additionally, a loss by Samsung may result in major unhappiness from existing Samsung customers. They’ve already had to remove a feature on already-sold phones, if a court orders them to alter the user experience further, unwelcome change may be coming. There’s nothing consumers can do to prevent manufacturers like Samsung from disabling exclusive, marketing features, they just expect that it would be bad business to do so. Unfortunately, Apple might not give them a choice.
If Samsung wins, what might that lead to?
Unfortunately, this is a mixed outcome. While this would be a good short-term victory for Samsung, I would be extremely surprised if Apple handled a defeat well. Apple has a huge patent portfolio, and there’s nothing stopping them from trying again and again and again, wearing themselves and Samsung down together.
Among non-corporations, it’s pretty well agreed that software patents aren’t a great idea. The only thing that stops everyone from suing everyone else is that just about every player in the software industry has a few patents in their arsenal, and there would be a bit of mutually assured destruction if lawsuits sprung up. Clearly, this is not such a deterrent anymore. Apple may well have fired the opening salvo in what may be a long, cold war.
Is this good for the consumer?
In short, absolutely not. If Apple wins, competition is stifled. If Samsung wins, it’s only going to get worse. Every dollar spent on a lawsuit like this is one less spent on real innovation, which only hurts us further. How many engineers could Samsung and Apple have hired instead of hiring their legal teams? Would they have made major, awesome advances in phone and touchscreen technology to really compete with each other? Sadly, we’ll never get to find out.