Must smartphones be similar to iPhone to sell?

Summary:The landmark Samsung/ Apple verdict made it clear that phone makers must give wide berth to the design of the iPhone to avoid legal trouble. That's easy enough to do, but will it sell?

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The web is abuzz with the verdict in the Apple/ Samsung patent infringement case. The jury handed Apple a near complete victory, ruling that most of Samsung's smartphone line copied the design of the iPhone. There will certainly be an appeal of this decision so it's not over by a long shot.

The discussion over what Samsung will/should do going forward is all over the web. The future of Android is also entering the debate, as some basic UI principles in that OS were ruled in the concluded trial to belong to Apple.

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There is a contingent that believes Apple should never have been awarded these patents for design and UI features. I'm not going to get into that as I am not a legal expert nor was I present in the court to hear what the jury heard in the trial.

This article is not about what can or cannot happen going forward, with either Android or Samsung's future smartphone line. That's beyond the scope of this column and not the point. What is the point is no matter how Android or Samsung might change in reaction to this court decision, will the change be successful in the only court that matters, the marketplace?

Whether you feel that Samsung's phones infringe on Apple's design, there is no escaping that most of them are similar. I don't believe consumers would be confused that a particular Samsung phone was an iPhone, but that's not the issue. I'm strictly referring to the fact that the Samsung phones do indeed look similar to the iPhone.

Again, I'm not getting into the legalities of that. But what if it indicates a fact of the market that is ominous for all smartphone makers going forward? What if the public buying record shows that consumers want phones that are similar to the iPhone? 

Let's face it, in the early Android days the phones, no matter who made them, didn't sell in huge numbers. Those phones were very much unlike the iPhone, and Android was different too. 

Multi-touch didn't come to Android until version 2.0, and then Google left it up to the OEMs to implement it on individual phones. Public demand made it clear that multi-touch, with pinch-to-zoom and other features was what buyers wanted, and it soon made it to every Android phone.

Google then got on board and started implementing multi-touch throughout Android. Unsurprisingly, this happened after Google's Eric Schmidt left the Apple board of directors due to Google's competition with Apple in the smartphone space.

The point I am making is that Android didn't get successful until after multi-touch, patented by Apple, was an integral part of the user experience. The public demanded it and started buying Android phones in numbers after they got it.

While Android was evolving to the successful form of today, Samsung, HTC, and other OEMs were releasing lots of phones into the market. Everyone was reaching for the magic formula that consumers would like in the numbers required for success.

The early Android phones were not like the iPhone at all, and then that began to change. Phones made by Samsung in particular began to look increasingly like the iPhone, and sales took off.

Samsung has become the top smartphone seller in the world, and while many don't believe its phones copy the iPhone, they are definitely similar. I'm not debating the rightness nor wrongness of that, it's not the point of this article.

I am stating that I believe that Samsung's success was not the result of producing as many phone models as possible, rather that consumers began snapping them up in numbers because they liked them. They liked them because the basic design is appealing, and the operation is what consumers want.

This indicates to me that for a smartphone to sell in the millions, it must be similar in form and function to the iPhone. This is obviously what the buying public wants, based on sales records of Samsung produced at trial. The phones that sold millions were the ones ultimately ruled as infringing on Apple's design.

Taken further, phones that are radically different from the iPhone in appearance have yet to acheive any success in the market. That may be coincidence but I don't think so.

Remember the Palm Pre? It was totally different than the iPhone in appearance, and it totally tanked in the marketplace. Even with a radically different OS (Apple once hinted at its unhappiness with the Pre over the multi-touch operation) the Pre tanked in the market. (Note that it was then-COO Tim Cook who made the veiled threats back in 2009).

The Windows Phone line is radically different than the iPhone and iOS, and while young it has yet to make a significant dent in the smartphone sales numbers. The radically different hardware, think Nokia, is not flying off the shelves in numbers any where near the level of popular smartphones.

I believe all of this points to the fact that the buying public wants particular design in the hardware and the software on smartphones. That design preference is for products similar to the iPhone with iOS. Sure there are those who like different things, but I'm talking strictly about big numbers here.

That leaves the future of the smartphone space in a questionable place since the verdict. Purchase history shows consumers will only buy a certain style of phone. This style can not be produced without some arrangement with Apple (a la Microsoft). 

Companies will no doubt experiment with handsets and perhaps even software to distance their produts from potential legal trouble. The huge question is if consumers will buy that? History has so far proven the answer to be no.

To recap, I am not saying that Samsung (or others) copied the iPhone. I am saying that smartphones didn't start selling in significant numbers until they adopted a design similar to the iPhone. The buying public made its preference known with its wallet, and that was for a form and function similar to the iPhone. A design now proven in court to belong to Apple.

Topics: Smartphones, Apple, Google, Legal, Patents

About

James Kendrick has been using mobile devices since they weighed 30 pounds, and has been sharing his insights on mobile technology for almost that long. Prior to joining ZDNet, James was the Founding Editor of jkOnTheRun, a CNET Top 100 Tech Blog that was acquired by GigaOM in 2008 and is now part of that prestigious tech network. James' w... Full Bio

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