I’m still dumb-founded at the outcome of this case. On the surface it looks like a sure-fire win for Samsung – you can’t design tablets in any other way other than a slate of around 7″ to 10.1″ because that still makes it usable. You can’t have too many buttons because that overcrowds things and makes it finicky. You can’t use gestures that don’t make sense to the user for swiping because at the end of the day, you’d like it to be easily picked up and used by anyone.
And in the ensuing court cases around the globe in which Apple repeatedly tried to kill off Samsung’s sales of its tablets and smartphones that Apple claims were too similar, it finally came to a head in one jury trial where the decision was finally announced – Samsung has been found guilty of copying Apple’s designs and has been ordered to award $1.05 billion to the Cupertino company.
Its odd, if you take both tablets in hand and examine them at the same time, that some people claim they see similarities. On the surface, they couldn’t be more different – the Galaxy Tab has a longer 16:9 aspect ratio whereas the iPad makes do with 4:3. If anything, the iPad is more similar to the LG Optimus Vu and you don’t see them getting dragged off into a bout of legal bullying. There’s not a lot of ways you can design a tablet computer to make it look different from other tablets.
There’s that old, oft-spoken phrase said by wise people who know a losing battle when they see one – “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em!” Apple’s defence lawyers took this to heart and drove into the jury from day one the notion that the Android ecosystem and the OS itself was designed to ‘lead companies to imitate the iPhone product design and strategy.” Now from the standpoint of a user who owns anything other than a Samsung phone with Touchwiz installed, this can’t be further from the truth. Android’s stock interface is even further away from the experience iOS provides and there’s a good reason for that – Google didn’t want another Apple clone.
Google in fact bought out Motorola for its manufacturing arm and patents specifically so it could defend Android properly in court. It feared, rightly so, that companies like Apple would come forward and claim patent infringement because their taskbars looked too similar and I’m not kidding, that’s how bad the situation was becoming. In a lawsuit in the German high court last year Apple managed to get sales of Samsung phones halted because their notifications drawer was too similar. Mind you this isn’t the OS’ fault, but rather that of Samsung’s Touchwiz interface, something they designed and applied on their own.
In its defence, Apple has a point where Touchwiz is concerned. There are certain elements where the two platforms line up very neatly with each other but for the most part, Apple’s patents allowed them too much leniency in deciding where the line was to be drawn. Utility patents aren’t valued or forced as much in court cases and design patents hold more sway. But if the wording is changed to make things more ambiguous, then there’s its a little less clear on how things would work. And it lands up in Apple’s favour in the end.
What this means for the rest of the industry is a little less certain. Having their patent dispute settled and the validity of their design and utility patents verified, Apple can now use its win to corner its opponents who choose to design similar products and force them to pay royalty fees. Worse, it could eventually take its case to every manufacturer using Android to cough up for that privilege. Its telling that Samsung is working on its own successor to Bada, called Tizen, because it felt that hedging all its bets on Android would be a problem in future. This is one of the reasons why I don’t see Mozilla’s Boot-to-Gecko taking off so well – its an iOS clone from what I’ve seen so far. It even has elements of Android and Microsoft’s Windows Phone in there, further complicating things for a fledgling platform that doesn’t have a hardware partner yet.
In future, we’ll see more companies deliberately include other things in their designs in order to avoid being “confused” with the iconic iPad and iPhone design.We’ll see more companies move away from releasing too many Android handsets and rather focus their attention on creating their own ecosystems, just like Microsoft has been doing with Windows Phone. In the end, Apple’s legal strengths may allow it to strongarm the market and rule it, in a way, with its own version of an iron fist.
Or it might not. Perhaps the company only wanted its products to be as unique as was rightly deserved. Maybe Samsung’s the badboy in this whole ordeal and perhaps the Cupertino company is being unfairly treated. But we’ll never know the whole truth, only what the story seems to be from an outsider’s perspective. I do hope that money gets put to good use and this is the end of their little spat. Maybe both companies can go back to making great phones and tablets now that they’ve had their differences settled for them.