If Apple’s the pot, Samsung’s the kettle
Apple has won its patent-infringement case against Samsung Electronics in a California court. But is the US company’s heavy-handedness justified? By Craig Wilson.
A California court has ruled in Apple’s favour in its patent-infringement case against Samsung. Slapped with a fine of US$1bn, and facing the possibility of having some of its products banned in the US, Samsung will almost certainly appeal against the decision. But with Apple’s own history of pilfering ideas, is an iron-fisted approach really the best one for the company at this juncture?
Apple lifted the computer mouse and graphic user interface (GUI) from Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center. Sure, it improved on these technologies, making them commercially accessible, but that doesn’t change the fact that Apple imitated rather than innovated, at least in some respects, in its heady early days.
In fact, it could be argued that Apple didn’t invent any of its best-selling products. There were digital music players before the iPod, smartphones before the iPhone and tablet computers before the iPad. What Apple did do was often to create the most compelling implementations of these products — for a time at least.
The iPhone is no longer the cutting-edge smartphone it was when the first generation hit the market. The “grid of rounded squared icons” — one of the bones of contention with Samsung — actually makes the current iPhone operating system look dated compared to the dynamic, customisable interfaces offered by both Google’s Android (which powers most Samsung smartphones) and Microsoft’s new Windows Phone operating system.
The foundation of Apple’s claims against Samsung was related to design and interface elements. In terms of design, it’s hard to argue that a number of Samsung’s products didn’t closely resemble Apple’s in look and feel. The first Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 was virtually indistinguishable from Apple’s iPad at first glance, from the packaging to the device itself.
Similarly, the Samsung Galaxy S2 handset resembled the iPhone 4 and 4S. Not surprisingly, Apple tried to get Samsung’s latest flagship phone, the Galaxy S3, added to the court battle, but it backed away because of the delays it would have introduced. That was probably a good thing for Apple considering how little the S3 looks or feels like an iPhone.
This is one of the problems of patent lawsuits in a business that is as fast moving as mobile. Some of Samsung’s devices may have looked or behaved like Apple’s in the past, but arguably they don’t any more.
There’s also the problem of features becoming de rigeur to the point that they cease to be innovative and become expected. Pinch to zoom, double-tapping to zoom to a predefined level, or holding an icon or widget to move or alter it — these have become standards of touch devices and are so ubiquitous that they’re part of our collective understanding about how these devices work.
Apple was once the underdog in the IT industry and as such was cheered on in its battle against the supposedly ruthless and unstoppable Microsoft. But now the tables have turned. Apple is the biggest company on the planet by market value and, some say, is beginning to act like Microsoft in the bad old days.
Apple got to the top by taking existing ideas and innovating the pants off them, leaving the competition in the dust. It didn’t get to the top by wading into lawsuit after lawsuit, squabbling over patents and the shape of icons.
Samsung has taken a beating this round. It may still lose the right to distribute certain of its products in the US. But Apple hasn’t come out of this smelling of roses. Samsung called the verdict a loss for consumers. It may have a point. — (c) 2012 NewsCentral Media