That distant sound you hear is Apple and Samsung slamming into each other in a San Jose courtroom like two bighorn rams vying for dominance. Apple says Samsung stole its ideas; Samsung says it had similar ideas first.
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For many, it’s a simple patent case that will be won or lost based on the evidence of inspiration. Yet what’s at stake is more than the $2.5 billion Apple wants from Samsung’s hide -- it’s the future of innovation, and maybe even the very definition of an idea.
Apple and Samsung’s multi-billion legal battle over curves, colors and button placement is easily one of the most compelling and important patent cases in recent history. It could decide the future of Samsung’s mobile business -- in the U.S., at least.
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The revelations coming out of the trial (and outside of it) are nothing short of stunning. Court documents and purposely leaked product plans have revealed the road to the first Apple iPhone and the Samsung’s pre-iPhone plans to make a button-free, slab-style phone.
This tit-for-tat will go on for weeks, as both sides try to prove to a jury that they alone came up with the idea for a rectangular, curved edge, all black gesture-ready smartphone devices. The jurors will sit there trying to be impartial, like they’ve never owned or used a smartphone like the iPhone or Samsung Galaxy SIII.
Everyone knows these phones and handsets like them. Touchscreens are everywhere. Icon-based interfaces are the standard.
I worry that the argument in the jury room will quickly devolve into an iOS versus Android debate. And yet the kind of questions at stake are more about design: who came up with the idea of a curve first? Who thought of making a phone black and button-free first?
Obviously, neither Apple nor Samsung invented the rectangular phone with curved edges or tablet-like gadgets. Touch-screen PDAs go all the way back to the 1990’s. Tablets also existed, though they were pretty much useless. But these early products clearly influenced every company that has since built smartphones and tablets. How could they have not?
In order to know what works, you have to know what didn’t work -- and you also have to recognize the handful of good ideas in those failed enterprises.
Apple is seeking billions in damages because Samsung lifted its ideas. Apple is partially right. Samsung was clearly influenced by the iPhone. Samsung admitted this on day one of the trial, stating: “the iPhone was an inspiring product to everyone. Being inspired by a product is called competition. It's not copying."
The Heart of Inspiration
Is inspiration a bad thing? Of course not. Apple will argue that Samsung went far beyond inspiration. In court documents filed last year, Apple made it clear that it believes Samsung methodically copied all key iPhone design elements:
Closely comparing Apple’s patented design with Samsung’s products reinforces the conclusion of substantial similarity. Samsung copied every major element of Apple’s patented design
a flat, clear, black-colored, rectangular front surface with four evenly rounded corners; an inset rectangular display screen centered on the front surface that leaves very narrow borders on either side of the display screen and substantial borders above and below the display screen; and a rounded, horizontal speaker slot centered on the front surface above the display screen, where the rectangular front surface is otherwise substantially free of ornamentation outside of an optional button area centrally located below the display.
The differences between Samsung’s smartphones and Apple’s are too subtle to matter, argues the Cupertino giant.
On some levels, Apple is right. When I first saw some of Samsung’s smartphones --such as the Infuse, Captivate and Galaxy S -- I wondered how they could so blatantly rip-off the Apple look and feel. If I were Apple, I would be mad enough to sue.
Mad As Hell
By early 2011 Apple founder and CEO Steve Jobs was already furious about the competition, but not necessarily Samsung. His ire was reserved for Google and the Android platform, which all of these Samsung phones use, as do most of the other popular smartphones on the market.
According to Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs biography, the late CEO had tried to dissuade Google from developing Android and eventually became incensed when iPhone-like features started to appear on Android phones. Isaacson writes that Jobs told him:
"Our lawsuit is saying, ‘Google, you fucking ripped off the iPhone, wholesale ripped us off.’ Grand theft. I will spend my last dying breath if I need to, and I will spend every penny of Apple’s $40 billion in the bank, to right this wrong. I’m going to destroy Android, because it’s a stolen product. I’m willing to go to thermonuclear war on this. They are scared to death, because they know they are guilty."
Will jurors really be able to accept that placing a screen in the center of the device, as opposed to off center, is an Apple invention? That using a rounded and centered speaker slot is the height of invention? I doubt it.
Is It Worth It?
Apple is spending millions of dollars fighting this case, to recover billions of dollars it does not need. Samsung is fighting for its mobile life. If Apple succeeds and expels Samsung’s smartphone and tablet from the U.S. mobile market, it will have to decide if it then wants to methodically take on every other phone and tablet manufacturer.
Eventually it will face Google, and both companies will spend many more millions to prove they invented their own touchscreen interface and all the mobile OS underpinnings that drive it.
Let me be clear. Apple’s iPhone was the first touchscreen, app-drive phone that mattered. It is the most important product in the last 10 years. It is highly influential, as all good products should be. It is not, though, the beginning and end of the smartphone market.
Apple should not be the company that wins this case and kills future mobile product innovation.
We stand on the shoulders of giants. What we say, do, write, create is always influenced by those that came before us. No action happens in a vacuum. Medical, scientific and technological breakthroughs start with the raw materials of someone else’s work. We call this progress.
The patent system seems to call this theft. The truth may be somewhere in the middle. Let’s hope innovation doesn't get squeezed as the judicial system tries to work this out.
This story originally published on Mashable here.
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