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.


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.

  • Deocliciano Okssipin Vieira

    All that waste of time just to state this:

    – … 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.

    And isn’t that specific to any worthy brand?

    Try using anyone else identity, and you’ll be in trouble.

  • Max Ellis

    I appreciate the summary of US patent conditions, and Apple’s position within them.

    Too often, companies are NOT in any trouble for their lack of innovation. There will always be those who purchase similar yet inferior products, while they eschew Apple products based on ideological reasons they can’t fully explain. The clone market also survives thanks to ignorant consumers who assume things like the $100 Walgreens tablet being “just as good.”

    Whenever Apple creates anything successful, there is but a brief span before other companies jump on the bandwagon, and the closer each of their products attempts to clone Apple’s, the closer it follows the same old pattern:

    1. Hopeful prototypes and marketing hype prompt short-sighted tech columnists to hail it as the next “[Apple product] killer!”
    2. Product limps out of the gate, after which the company will only report on the quantity ‘in the sales channel,’ not actual units sold.
    3. Product is forgotten within months, as tech pundits begin to follow new product announcements.
    4. Repeat.

    This pattern will continue until companies realize that Apple doesn’t create great product market categories (tablets, personal media players, smartphones). Apple creates great products.

  • moringa

    i used lg prada long time ago, i thought multi-touch means you can use two or more fingers onto the screen, not just one, like playing ocarina, and lg prada can’t do that (scrolling the springboard only use one)

  • Anonymous

    Great piece Mike!

  • johnbijl

    Excellent post – great read.

  • Arcanus

    Neither LG Prada nor HTC touch weren’t multitouch, so Apple were in fsct the first ones to launch multi-touch displays

  • Bill

    Actually, StarTrek NG was the creator of the tablet computing concept

  • Zyarc

    Basically Apple’s lawsuits over patents is the “grown-up” equivalent to the school yard bully. It’s ludicrous because now Samsung is counter suing. Check this out:… At this point it’s practically like one chicken laying an egg and then suing another chicken for laying an egg.

  • Jonathan

    I am tired of all these smartphones looking too much like the iPhone. If I wanted an iPhone I’d get a freakin’ iPhone but I don’t, I want something that is recognizably DIFFERENT. When people see my Droid 1 in my hip-holster they immediately recognize it as the Droid. If imitation is best form of flattery then all these stupid manufactures who make their phones look similar to the iPhone are really saying “We’re Wannabes.”

  • NomNomCrApplelicious

    I’d like to add Samsung to that mix of pre-existing technology. In early 2006, Samsung introduced the first Gesture Based Touchscreen Multi-media Smartphone and actually had it up for sale a whole year before iPhone went on sale. It was the SGH-Z610 and it had rounded corners, 16 icons up on a desktop, two cameras (one front facing for video chat), a speaker above the 3.5″ touchscreen and a physical round button w/ a play arrow icon below it. It was white bringing in references to iPods, but that single round button on it’s face was nothing like the Shuttle Controls on a non-touchscreen iPod! ……but anything white for some reason got classified as an Apple device when countless white devices had been out for years!

    Next we have Samsung not only producing the first tablet device (over Newton), the GridPad in 1989, but being the first to market an Origami Tablet PC also in 2006. Later the Q-1 dropped the physical keyboard along with all buttons on it’s front face and here it is here:

    So it seems to me Apple is doing what they started out doing….. STEALING! From the $1000 of dollars of phone calls from AT&T to GUI and mouse from Xerox, Apple hasn’t stopped copying other company’s ideas. Their present phone icon (that they just Trademarked last year) is actually rooted in public stock photos with a white phone on a green icon that goes back to the 90’s and they are suing Samsung for using this icon longer than they have? …..and what about LG…. Are they next? They also use this same public domain icon!

    In the end Apple’s ploy to foil sales of more timely dual core phone that’s far superior in most every respect. It’s lighter, thinner faster than they can ever make the iPhone 5 with it’s monster A5 SoC. No phone SoC out today is as fast and powerful as Samsung’s Exynos. The first all ARM SoC design out incorporating a quad core GPU capable of rendering simultaneously to three screens. Two WSVGA and one via HDMI to HDTV at 1080p 60fps and the first capable of this ever on mobile devices. That’s streaming 4K equivalent graphics with a phenomenal 4.4Gigapixel/sec fill rate! …..and the SGX-543 in A5 can’t even do half that!

    Now we have Apple suing Samsung for design ques that originated in Samsung products and with the most patents on the planet other than IBM, Samsung responds back with 10 patents in four different jurisdictional courts w/ the potential to actually win these while Apple loses this case in a heartbeat!!! 

  • coco

    well written. i am quoting ur  link.

  • coco

    dont make phones people. apple might sue you.