Thoughts on Samsung v. Apple

On Friday, the jury awarded Apple a resounding victory against Samsung in addition to more than a billion in damages for willful copyright infringement and patent violation. The tech world has been abuzz for months now and nearly everyone has an opinion on the validity of the verdict. Personally, I think the jury made the right decision given the blatant copying by Samsung. While most believe that this may result in even greater control by Apple in the marketplace and further strengthening of the already-draconian patent system, the verdict in favor of Samsung would have been far worse. It would have legitimized widespread copying of patented hardware resulting in billions of dollars in losses not just for Apple but other innovative companies as well.

While some may disagree, Apple has been at the forefront of amazing industrial design and highly effective marketing for their products that enabled them to come back from insolvency to becoming the most valuable company in the world in a matter of 15 years. The almost-strict adherence to user-friendly and aesthetic designs and highly efficient customer service made its consumers highly loyal. For once, good design also meant good usability aka form follows function. It may not be as open as people want it to be but in exchange for a little bit of freedom, Apple succeeded in giving their consumers a higher level of user satisfaction. If people didn’t like that, they still had access to more open choices.

This at-times intense feud between Apple loyalists and others remained on the fringes until the iPhone debuted in 2007. Suddenly Apple was so successful that in 2012, the iPhone revenues surpassed all of Microsoft’s revenues. Apple suddenly had a product that was so successful despite its early naysayers, that not following in its path was almost suicidal for a company (ask RIM). Even in this day and age of industrial espionage, others were caught lagging far behind but soon in a couple of years, powered by a free ‘open’ mobile OS Android by Google, several phone manufacturers released their versions of the iPhone i.e. a touchscreen smartphone that leapfrogged its predecessors. But that’s ok. That’s how innovation works. Someone shows the way and others follow. As long as they are not trying to deceive consumers that they are the original thing. That, in my opinion, was Samsung’s mistake.

We all remember how Steve Jobs had claimed that Apple had “patented the hell out of the iPhone” when it was announced in 2007. So obviously, it did have a claim over several technologies that are now claimed as ‘obvious’. But I’m sure, Apple considered that others would replicate some features into their products in order to compete with the iPhone. That is the cost of doing business. However, Samsung took it a step further, heck several steps further. They became the second-most profitable mobile handset company after Apple (some in the tech circles are actually admiring them for making this choice) by blatantly offering the non-Apple iPhone in as many varieties as it could and in as many aspects as it could. I think it crossed Apple’s tolerance threshold when they started even imitating the USB charging cables, adapters, and even packaging boxes. In short, it bordered on deceiving the consumers into thinking that they were actually buying an Apple product or at least one that could be easily mistaken as such. It wasn’t just a question of copy a rectangle or a pinch-to-zoom feature (Update: the pinch-to-zoom patent wasn’t in play but instead these three patents) but in fact, creating this whole package that shamelessly reeked of unoriginality. Even if the ‘rectangle with rounded corners’ that seemed so obvious now, Apple was the one that took a huge risk by coming out with the first original model. It could’ve failed spectacularly (remember the doomsday predictions when the iPad came out in 2010?) but instead it succeeded thus creating a market. To follow in a market thus created is the easiest thing one can do.

In terms of branding, perception is everything and if people who dislike Apple criticize its users for simply buying into the hype and its products just to appear cool, Samsung was tapping into that basic human sentiment and signaling to its potential customers that if not Apple, you could buy our products and perhaps be mistaken for using Apple products. For all the talk of their phones simply being “rectangles with rounded corners”, it was proven decisively in court that Samsung executives and engineers debated and communicated internally on various facets of Apple’s designs before working on their own. This ‘willful’ infringement was the sole reason Apple won such a decisive victory. As Nokia shows with its equally impressive Lumia series phones powered by Windows 8 [1] that it is possible to make equally impressive phones without being mistaken for an iPhone [2]. In short, Samsung wanted to take the easy way out and bring products immediately to the market without investing in original research. This would be tantamount to incorporating J.K. Rowling’s characters in creating a whole new series at the same time her books are in the market. Such a move in fact deters innovation. Samsung wanted it all without putting in the effort and simply tried to ride the wave of negativism against Apple among techies. For example, the Galaxy Note 10.1 released recently tried hard not to be the iPad, stylus and all, but it was panned so badly that you wonder if Samsung was really invested in design, would they ever released such a bad product?

Now it has been established in the court of law that Samsung is a copycat although the extent of the damages hasn’t yet been determined. We don’t know if Samsung will be required to pull the incriminating products off the shelves or will it be asked to pay a ‘licensing fee’ for each product sold henceforth. And its not like Apple has not been at the other side of the fence either. But the damage has been done. It could’ve invested resources in coming up with a truly original phone with equally impressive technologies but it choose short-term profit over long-term respect. It could have even done it before Apple announced the iPhone but that needs foresight. It deserved what it got. Hopefully this will let the genuinely interested original innovators break free [3].

Footnotes:
  1. Naren Balaji rightly points out “Lumia Series is currently powered by WP7 and WP8 Lumia phones aren’t out yet and current phones won’t get WP8.” A bone-headed move by Microsoft but my larger point of design differentiation stands []
  2. This verdict may be a blessing in disguise for Microsoft as Android manufacturers and consumers might flock to its stores for an Apple alternative []
  3. Reforming the patent system is a dead horse everyone keeps beating without suggesting what actually should be changed. Everyone involved currently plays by the same rules however ridiculous so blaming the system is not the core issue here. That perhaps is a topic for a separate post []
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  • http://twitter.com/prsng Prasoon

    Loved the write-up. Detailed :-)

    • http://www.ipatrix.com Patrix

      Thanks.

  • supremus

    This was in reality a stale mate for all parties involved. Samsung forgot the line between cloning and copying and should’ve stuck to the latter, instead went all out to convince customers that they were getting the iPhone, but only for less. On the other side, now thats its been 5+ years since the iPhone, i think its fair enough to say whatever their touch patents are quite mass market now and should be free for all now. I am of opinion that tech patents should have much lesser expiry date than regular ones of 20+ years, since the cost/rate of innovation in tech industry is way fast moving than other industries.

    That said I am glad somebody did not patent the steering wheel… phew!

    • http://www.ipatrix.com Patrix

      I agree that the patent system is largely to blame for the state of affairs but all parties are trying to work to their best advantage as it exists. As you too said, Samsung just pushed the limits a bit too much plus all that proof of deliberately using the iPhone as something to copy from.

      Given the rapid change in technology, 20 years seem like a long time so that can be shortened considerably but only for technological solutions. You still can’t try to dupe the consumer into giving a ‘near-copy’ of the dominant product in the market.