Apple vs. Samsung: Everything Changes, Everything Stays the Same

Aug 25, 2012
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A death-blow to Samsung; a free patent ride for Apple; a surprise window of opportunity for Microsoft: so the $1bn Apple vs. Samsung trial has been summed up as, and more. A US jury's decision this week that Samsung had "willfully" infringed Apple patents and should be vigorously punished for it has already scored deep the Android versus iOS battle lines. Yet, for all the huge sums and the outraged cries for patent reform - not to mention whispers that this finally could be Windows Phone's chance to shine - it's unclear exactly what will change.

Apple's successes came both in the functionality of Samsung's devices and the way they look. Not only was the South Korean company's line-up slapped for how things like lists bounce in scrolling and how touchscreen zooming works, but in overstepping the line in trade dress, or the visual distinctiveness of the iPhone 3G and how closely devices like the Galaxy S resemble them. Cue the hyperbolic statements.

Neither Samsung nor Apple's post-verdict comments sit entirely comfortably. Samsung's attempts to paint the decision as bad news for consumers and its own actions as solely those of an innovator stand at odds with the fact that, seen side by side with iOS, some iterations of TouchWiz have looked more than a little similar.

Apple's stance, however, that it was "thrilled to be able to finally tell" its story and its insistence that values - not patents or cash - were at stake sits uneasily with what appeared to be increasingly broad-strokes claims. With the jury opting not to strike down any of the company's patents cited in the trial, Apple is still able to roughly lay claim to "rectangles with rounded corners" - as Samsung snipes - but should it be?

[aquote]The marketplace is benefited by competition and choice[/aquote]

As someone who uses both iOS and Android devices regularly, my concern is that everyday users will suffer the most from this latest round of litigation. The iPhone and iPad are certainly popular, but so is Android, and the marketplace is benefited by competition and choice. Apple's point that Samsung has at times stuck closely to iOS style may be true, yet Samsung devices have advanced considerably since the mainly 2010 and 2011 range Apple's lawyers targeted. TouchWiz has a style of its own, as do the more recent phones and tablets; yes, perhaps Samsung should be punished for its transgressions of yesterday, but that could have serious ramifications for the developments of tomorrow.

That needn't be a bad thing, mind. If Samsung - and the other OEMs, who have certainly been watching keenly from the sidelines - chooses to take the ruling as inspiration rather than solely chastisement, customers may benefit. There are more ways than one to make a touchscreen smartphone, and Samsung's undoubtedly clever (and sizable) development team could do much worse than get imaginative with their new products.

Meanwhile, Pure Android, in its Jelly Bean iteration now significantly different in look and feel from TouchWiz, has so far escaped Apple's iOS comparison wrath. That might make an untampered Android OS more appealing to manufacturers (and make Google more likely to speak out in their defense should Cupertino come calling).

Chatter of an uptick in Windows Phone sales seems overly hopeful, however. Microsoft's platform may be nearing a new iteration that, from what we've seen to date, looks considerably stronger than the Windows Phone we know today, but it's still a minor player in the marketplace. And Samsung would be wise not to rely on arguments of preconceived notions by the jury playing too great a part in the decision come appeals time; while the judgement might have been made quickly, experts point to the time still taken to differentiate between different Samsung products in the final ruling as evidence that deeper consideration was still made than a clean sweep of home-team Apple loyalty.

[aquote]Changes on store shelves may well be minimal[/aquote]

Apple will have to wait for a while to get its billion dollar check. Samsung has already said it is committed to challenging the ruing and then, if still unsatisfied, taking it to the Appeals Court. The $1.05bn figure could be shaved away too, and there are multiple other cases taking place worldwide which are yet to reach their own decisions. Device injunctions are yet to be decided upon - the hearing for that has been tentatively set for September 20 - but with many of the phones on the list old or having seen significant Android/TouchWiz updates since the form that so frustrated Apple, the changes on store shelves may well be minimal.

With IFA next week, we'll see the first signs of new phones and tablets from Samsung, along with HTC and others. Then will come a new iPhone, along with outliers from oft-rumored sources like Amazon and perhaps even Facebook. Microsoft and Nokia will trumpet Windows Phone 8 and a new range of Lumia handsets (while behind the scenes Microsoft will undoubtedly be redoubling its efforts to court Samsung and others into paying more attention to its smartphone OS).

As a consumer and as a tech enthusiast, I'm hoping the verdict this week leads to more innovative thinking and imaginative products. I don't want more identikit touchscreen slabs with little to differentiate them beyond logo and color. Samsung could treat this as a costly lesson and double-down on giving smartphone buyers true alternatives to Apple's well-known hardware: iOS has a loyal following, but it doesn't include everyone.


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