Must smartphones be similar to iPhone to sell?

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

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  • multitouch

    Apple didn't invent multitouch and they didn't patent it. Instead, they patented specific (and fairly obvious) multitouch gestures and uses and are now using those patents in an attempt to deprive others of the ability to use multitouch. It's a blatant abuse of the patent system, and Apple is trying to monopolize a technology they did not invent.
    tg77
    • If they're so obvious, why weren't

      they being used before Apple came along? Every invention is obvious AFTER someone has thought of it.
      baggins_z
      • pinch and zoom

        I am amazed by the stubborn resistance that some people have when you tell them that apple didn't invent everything. Pinch and zoom are intuitive gestures and should not be patented. Jeff Han showed this before iphone. In this video he gives credit to someone else who worked in the field in the 80's. He went on to form a company making large touch screens and Microsoft just bought that company. I wonder why, for protection maybe.

        Here is the link:

        http://www.ted.com/talks/jeff_han_demos_his_breakthrough_touchscreen.html

        Our technology is built a small piece at a time and everyone is standing on someone else's shoulders. Somethings should not be patented. I am sure a lot of these software techs remember movies like " Johnny Mnemonic 1995". Do you think that didn't influence anything and where did the director get the idea, it must have been around somewhere............calfee
        calfee20
        • Huge gestures have nothing to do with Apple's *mobile* capacitive ...

          ... screen's multi-touch UI. Nothing like this existed before Apple or was even "demonstrated".
          DDERSSS
          • Right...

            Right, because by doing the same thing, just on a smaller screen, it's totally different and patentable.

            Reminds me of the ridiculousness of so many internet related patents that were nothing more than taking well established techniques and attaching the phrase "on a network" to them.
            dsf3g
          • Did doing so require new tech and or

            methodology?

            Pagan jim
            James Quinn
          • It different technology and different application of multi-touch gestures

            ... concept. Nothing like existed or "demonstrated" before.

            All the previous examples were huge and were based on things like cameras, infra-red sensors, and so on.
            DDERSSS
          • So size matters?

            By your reckoning, the same gesture, on a larger scale or different application is totally irrelevant to every other use? Typical itard answer, 'we admit we saw it being used elsewhere but apple were really clever and innovative and revolutionary and original and the greatest company ever by spotting it could be used on something else and patenting it solely for that use'.

            Back to the article, we're back to this 'looks like an iphone' debate. I wanted a phone that made the most of the available area for display. So I wanted a phone that looked like an iphone or one that best made use of the available area for display? Well in so far as my next tv won't have 50% plastic surround and 50% screen, so yeah, I want one that looks like a sony.
            Little Old Man
  • The patent on multi-touch

    How was Apple in any fair manner ever awarded the multi-touch patent to begin with? Isn't patenting multi-touch a little like patenting a steering wheel?
    Defiantstyles
    • At the time, it was a great idea

      What's the matter with patenting the steering wheel? Have you ever looked at the controls on early automobiles? The steering wheel was not at all obvious, but as soon as you see it you slap your head and say, "Why didn't I think of that?" That is precisely what patents are supposed to reward.

      For all we know, the steering wheel did get a patent. It's expired now for sure. Multitouch will expire too.
      Robert Hahn
      • You do realize

        Apple didn't patent multitouch, just specific gestures.
        rhonin
        • Are you sure?

          All we hear from people like DRESSS, baggins, and Mr. Hahn is that Apple has patented multitouch. They wouldn't be lying about that, would they?
          toddbottom3
          • Ankle-biting twit

            Yes, I lied. You got me. Now let me give you a history lesson. Since the days of Usenet, the sort of person who conducts ever-more deeply nested tit-for-tat exchanges on ever-more picayune points has been detested beyond all other forms of life. Don't be detested beyond all other forms of life. Stop doing it.
            Robert Hahn
          • Take your own advice

            I don't apologize for calling you on your posting history. If you don't like it, deal with it or stop doing it.
            toddbottom3
          • You first, todd's buttocks

            Let's see you be an 'example' to everybody.

            lol...
            Cylon Centurion
          • I'm a big vaginal wart

            Cylo‭n Centurion
          • You're a lepoete73 in disguise

            Cylon Centurion
        • Speaking of gestures...

          I've got one doozy for Apple because of all of this, and it ISN'T patented!
          ADarkAria
      • Robert Hahn, are you educated enough

        to realize that steering wheel for automobiles was based on the ship's wheel invented in the Netherlands. They never thought about infringement back then in the early XVII century. Cook is not a Dutch surname. Why didn't Apple patent a steering wheel, I wonder. More to that, it has rounded corners too!
        eulampius
        • Technically, no, it doesn't

          The term "wheel" would indicate it is round, so therefore it has no corners to be rounded or otherwise.
          TroyMcClure