The field Guide to Apple’s Samsung Lawsuit …


Finally, Apple is dragging one of the many copycat hardware makers into court for copying Apple’s brilliant ideas.

Or…

Apple joins in on the lawsuit frenzy to win in the courts instead of competing on features, price and user friendliness.What are we to make of Apple’s  recent lawsuit against Samsung? Is Apple right? Did Samsung “slavishly copy Apple’s innovative technology, distinctive user interfaces, and elegant and distinctive product and packaging design”?

What’s the likely outcome? Why Samsung? Why now?

The legal mumbo jumbo surrounding cases like these make them boring as hell. But the impact of this turn of events could be far reaching, and affect the future of computing and mobility.

What you need to know is that while this lawsuit seems narrow and specific — targeting a handful of Samsung devices for copying the iPad and iPhone — it’s really a warning for industry at large, and about the entire iOS family of products, from wristwatches today to desktops tomorrow and everything in between.

This is not about the iPad vs. the Tab. It’s about Apple’s very unique approach to everything vs. everyone else’s business-as-usual — and it’s about the future of computing.

Patently Absurd

The way patents are granted and defended in this country is a joke. You can patent anything, and standards are very low. Later, some poor judge has to decide these issues in a courtroom, and that’s not an effective way to protect innovation.

The ugly truth is that every smart phone in existence has hundreds or even thousands of features that someone, somewhere claims as their own infringed patent.

Companies are now buying entire companies just to get their hands on the truckloads of patents the target company holds. Google, for example, is trying to buy Nortel’s entire patent portfolio for $900 million.

You’re supposed to invent something, then protect your invention with a patent. But now companies just register, contrive and buy as many patents as they can get their hands on — just in case. It’s really dumb.

The broken American patent system explains some of the absurd claims in Apple’s lawsuit. Companies are rewarded in lawsuits for eggagerating claims, because they’re often settled through negotiation. Like most patent lawsuit complaint’s, Apple’s is equal parts legal red meat and dryer lint. Think of Apple’s published complaint as a bargaining position.

For example, Apple’s legal complaint contains this incredibly misleading statement: “Before the iPhone, cell phones were utilitarian devices with key pads for dialing and small, passive display screens that did not allow for touch control.” The statement implies that Apple shipped the first multi-touch phone without a physical keypad.

In fact, the LG Prada touch screen phone actually shipped in Europe and Asia well before the iPhone did. And it was winning design awards well before Apple CEO Steve Jobs unveiled the iPhone. The HTC Touch, a Windows Mobile smart phone, beat the iPhone to market as well.

Both these phones did all the things Apple’s complaint said made the iPhone “radically different.”

Don’t get me wrong. The iPhone was different from, and way better than, these other two phones. And it would have been very difficult for Apple to have copied LG or HTC, or vice versa. Thanks to the revolving door between companies, government labs and academia, big ideas like multi-touch screen interfaces emerge in many places at once.

Touch-screen phones and tablets would have happened with or without Apple. And Apple’s complaint exaggerates wildly.

What’s Apple’s — and What Isn’t?

Apple’s lawsuit against Samsung makes wide-ranging charges about intellectual property theft in the areas of methods, designs and general approaches.

Apple is likely to have better luck in the courts with the first two than the third. For example, in the complaint, Apple lawyers summarize “Multi-Touch” technology as an Apple invention “which allows users to navigate their iPhone, iPod touch and iPad devices by tapping and swiping their fingers on the screen.”

Apple has specific rights over its unique, patented methods for Multi-Touch, but can’t and shouldn’t patent the general approach of interfacing with a device by “tapping and swiping” fingers on a screen.

In the same way that Apple didn’t invent what used to be called the graphical user interface (GUI), but merely shipped the first commercially successful device using a GUI interface (the Mac), Apple also didn’t invent the idea of a touch-screen multi-touch, physics and gestures (MPG) UI. Universities and corporate research labs have been developing these ideas for many years. But Apple did invent specific approaches to these general ideas, and  boy, have they patented it.

Who’s the Real Target

Although several hardware makers have shipped products that appear to copy Apple innovations, Samsung is an especially juicy target.

One reason is that Samsung has the only real tablet competitor to the iPad, which is their Galaxy Tab.

While Apple dropped their iPhone late into an absurdly crowded international market overwhelmed by every type of design interface under the sun, the iPad tablet was released into a great, empty vacuum. When Apple shipped, the iPad was the only device of its kind. Apple truly invented the category. This will be easy to demonstrate in court.

The Tab will be compared to the iPad, and the similarities will be obvious. Then, in the context of that clear market innovation, a few Samsung phones will be compared with the iPhone as Apple makes the Big Case for the whole of the iOS system, one icon and one Multi-Touch gesture at a time.

It’s the range of iPhone-like devices and iPhone-like interface elements in general, and the Galaxy Tab in particular, that makes Samsung such a rich target. Apple wants to make an example of Samsung.

Apple will make its case for a very long list of transgressions, and will win some and lose some. The purpose of all this is similar to a dog urinating on all the trees in the yard. Apple is marking its territory, and putting other companies on notice.

The best-case outcome is that other companies will go out of their way to avoid Apple’s look-and-feel in all their competing products. And that will result in a little more differentiation for Apple now and for the next ten years, as the company ships upgrades to current products and rolls its iOS interface out to every device it sells.

Google, of course, makes Android. But Android is just a “platform” — hardware makers can roll their own interfaces and, of course, design their own hardware and packaging. By slamming Samsung, Apple no doubt intends to send a ripple of anxiety through the Androidesphere, and motivate designers to avoid iPadesque design elements.

For example, tech site GDGT says Amazon is working on an Android tablet built by Samsung. Amazon is a more direct competitor to Apple than even Samsung is. The reason is that, unlike Samsung, HP or Dell, Amazon makes tablets in order to sell content — sorta kinda like Apple does. By scaring Amazon and partner Samsung away from packaging, design, icons, screens and other elements that are Apple-like — even now, while the device is being designed, Apple is trying to de-commoditize the Apple approach to tablets. No doubt Amazon’s tablet will be super cheap, and if the average Joe thinks Amazon’s $300 KindleBook, or whatever, is just like a $600 iPad, then price pressure will be felt by Apple in the market.

Why is Apple suing Samsung? Why wouldn’t they? It’s all upside for Apple. The company gets publicity. It establishes Apple’s design and methods and other aspects of its business as off limits. And, best of all, it motivates competitors to avoid building products that have similarities to iOS devices, which helps Apple differentiate its brand in the marketplace now and in the future. It’s just another good idea.

 

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