August 28, 2012

Clash of the Smartphone Titans

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If you’re looking for deliciously buttery popcorn drama, look no further than the year-old patent infringement case between Apple and Samsung. Though Steve Jobs can’t personally fulfill his promise of going “thermonuclear” on the competing Android operating system, developed by Google, the Apple founder’s crusade is embodied in this trial. At its heart is a long list of core Samsung Android smartphone and tablet products — including the Galaxy line of smartphones and tablets — that Apple claims is part of a blatant and systematic effort by Samsung to copy Apple’s own iOS user interface. Tensions between the two companies over the rapidly expanding smartphone/tablet market, worth billions of dollars, have made the fight in the courtroom so nasty and outrageous that the judge presiding over the case asked whether Apple’s lawyers “were smoking crack.”

Even though the trial itself is dramatic, the details are not. Because the “look and feel” of a user interface is generally not copyrightable (Apple already tried this once in the 90s with Microsoft), Apple had to focus on minute details like the rounded corners of the iPhone or the bounce-back effect that scrolling too far on a web page causes.

The trial’s narrow focus didn’t stop Apple from trying to paint a picture of the similarities between Samsung’s customized Android operating system and Apple’s iOS. After weeks of arguing, Samsung lost an appeal to prevent Apple from presenting several damning Samsung internal company documents that compared their own smartphones to the iPhone. Everything, from the clicking sounds in the alarm app to deletion animations, was noted by Samsung as a feature that they lacked, the iPhone had, and they needed.

Samsung’s own documents discuss how “fun,” “nostalgic” and “intuitive” the iPhone is, while the Samsung Galaxy S is “dry,” “poor” and “confusing.”

Apple’s story is clear: Samsung’s phones are a product of a systematic effort to copy the iPhone, but that Samsung is still not very good at it. They aren’t suing only because of infringement, but also to maintain the perception of the iPhone’s superiority. As one of Apple’s lawyers said, “This is 100 pages of side-by-side comparison where they say ‘we’re going to copy the iPhone.’ What they didn’t do is ask their own inventors, ‘can you help us out here?’ Because they couldn’t.” Apple’s lawyers also managed to get into trial a satisfaction survey that Samsung commissioned to figure out why so many people were returning the Samsung Galaxy Tab — apparently people thought it was an iPad 2. But most customers returned the tablet without “knowing it was an Android product,” figuring instead that the “iPad 2” was bad. Even though the word wasn’t used by Apple, in their eyes, Samsung products are kitschy.Art critics throw around the word “kitsch” all the time within the context of the Kantian definition of art: kitschy works are partial (as opposed to disinterested), unoriginal, unnecessary, and unrefined. It is cheap and immediate pathos replicated endlessly for the masses, tacky copies of the more aesthetically pleasing “beautiful” thing that transcends real-world motives.

Weaving such a story begins to fall apart when talking about menus and icons. How can a user interface, which is designed for function, lack motive? Once an artwork has a motive — political dissent, advertising, or usability — there aren’t many ways to differentiate one from another. How many ways can someone interact with a touchscreen to go online, listen to a song, or play a game? Are rounded corners on a phone or a scroll bounce really patentable?

Samsung raises these questions in its defense to challenge the validity of Apple’s patents. After all, how else can you make a phone that doesn’t dig into your hands, other than having rounded corners? How else can you indicate the end of a web page without a scrollbar other than a bounce? How many ways can someone scroll something, or differentiate touchscreens from each other?

These fundamental questions on the purpose of design and trade dress are weaved into the 20-page verdict form and over 100 pages of instructions the parties dropped on the jury, highlighting how complex and difficult the jury’s task was in resolving the issues. After all, it’s not a coincidence that Samsung started selling Android phones after an internal Samsung memo described a “crisis in design” and a need to emulate Apple, but rounded corners are hardly the reason why customers recognize an iPhone as an iPhone.

You can imagine everybody’s surprise, then, when the jury came back with a complete 20-page verdict form in a record three days. Apple’s narrative of kitsch gave them a quick and decisive victory over Samsung with just a little over $1 billion in damages which, because the jury also determined the infringement was willful, automatically triple.

Instead of celebrating, Apple has wasted no time in moving on to the next part of the case, which is filing for injunctions for the sale of infringing Samsung phones in the U.S. But even though there are billions of dollars at stake, the trial is still more of a personal spat between the two companies rather than scaring off designers in the smartphone industry. Nothing will stop Samsung from making more Android phones and people from buying them. Android manufacturers are already designing around Apple’s patents. Icons will still be shiny and colorful. And, hopefully, the litigation will settle down and companies will refocus on making phones that won’t drop calls.

Original Author: Kai Sam Ng