August 28, 2012

On Samsung And Innovation

That Samsung has denied copying Apple and insisting that they stand for innovation should come as no surprise. After all, that’s the position they built for themselves when they entered into this battle. Apple picked up the glove, slapped them with a lawsuit accusing them of copying, and Samsung returned with a sophomoric, “Nuh-uh, you’re the copycat!”

It’s foolish to expect Samsung to tow any other line at this point, no matter how the verdict turned out on Friday.

And honestly, who expected the verdict to place Samsung ahead of Apple, anyway?

Throughout the entire trial, Apple brought out designer after designer, executive after executive to testify to Apple’s incredible hard work, racking up what I can only assume was a very hefty Research and Development bill. Time after time, slides were presented, pitting Samsung’s logos and products against Apple’s, shining a bright telling light on just how similar these products were to one another.

Furthermore, Samsung has a long track record of copying other successful phone makers. After all, what is the Samsung Blackjack and Blackjack 2 than a BlackBerry rip off? The Samsung i700 is not much more than a Palm Treo. So, when Apple first stepped onto the global smartphone stage in 2007, Samsung rightfully saw them as the next smartphone leader, ditched their ugly RIM and Palm ripoffs and started mimicking Apple, down to the icons, software and UI.

Apple’s not the bad guy, Apple’s simply the only company with the stones to stand up to Samsung.

There’s an assumption floating around in this conversation, however, that troubles me.

In Andy Ihnatko’s initial reaction piece to the verdict, he writes, “And it’s possible that the next great phone, the one that shames the iPhone the same way that the iPhone buried the Blackberry, will never make it to market. Designing and selling an advanced smartphone just became a dangerous business.”

Andy is a brilliant thinker and even more brilliant writer, but I have to say I disagree with him.

It’s wrong to assume that Samsung’s loss in this case means innovation will die. This is a lie which is being perpetuated by Samsung. Each of their public comments and statements is silly with this kind of language: “We trust that the consumers and the market will side with those who prioritize innovation over litigation,” for example.

It is still important to remember that, though they might be the largest smartphone manufacturer, Samsung isn’t the only phone maker in town. Other manufacturers have been able to make smartphones which do not resemble Apple in the same way Samsung resembles Apple. The obvious and oft-quoted example here is Microsoft.

Though they’ve yet to achieve the sort of traction a company needs to be a real, successful player in the smartphone market, they have a well-designed and good looking phone and interface. It also doesn’t hurt that they license some of their technologies from Apple and even promised not to create a device which too-closely resembles the iPhone.

My point is this: This verdict doesn’t give Apple exclusive rights to all rectangles and all devices fronted with a prominent touch screen: This verdict only rules that Samsung went out of their way to copy Apple rather than commit to the hard work themselves.

An Apple suit isn’t the most dangerous threat to existing or upcoming smartphone manufacturers; It’s the patent system, and plenty of other manufacturers are busy suing one another over these patents. Microsoft and Motorola, for instance, have found themselves entangled in similar rows.

Apple products only look effortless. These designers have gone out of their way to make these devices look obvious and simple. As we learned in the courtroom, however, the iPad and iPhone are the results of nothing less than years of tireless work. The end result is a device which looks so easy and so natural. Within moments of interacting with one of these devices for the first time, it hits you: “Of COURSE a phone or tablet should look and work this way,” you might think to yourself. And this is a revelation Apple did not come to easily.

These products are the end result of not only much testing of the hardware and software, but much debate and thought about “how” the phone should work and “why” it should work this way. There’s an element of philosophy in every Apple device, suggesting that someone took great pain to understand the device’s place in the universe.

Samsung’s “innovation” was to simply copy how the device looked without applying any of this deeper thought into the process.

So, while Samsung may hope to stir up the ire of those ardent Android fans with language like “History has shown there has yet to be a company that has won the hearts and minds of consumers and achieved continuous growth, when its primary means to competition has been the outright abuse of patent law, not the pursuit of innovation,” it comes across more like a company who isn’t willing to play the game if they can’t play by their own rules.

Every other company has to make their own devices, has to spend the money on R&D, has to put their necks on the line to create a product they believe is worthwhile, or at least good enough to turn a brief profit.

Apple’s win in this case hasn’t done anything to stop Samsung from making a quality product, it only served to call Samsung out on their lies. Samsung has now been publicly shamed, both in the courts and in the public eye, and now have no idea where to go from here.

Likewise, Google’s response to this lawsuit also furthers this sort of giving up when it comes to innovation.

“The mobile industry is moving fast and all players — including newcomers — are building upon ideas that have been around for decades. We work with our partners to give consumers innovative and affordable products, and we don’t want anything to limit that,” said a Google spokesperson in a statement to The Verge.

Making the claim that Apple has “killed innovation” or that the smartphone market will “suffer” as a result of this verdict is nothing more than lazy language. It’s throwing in the towel. It’s the talk of a petulant child who was beaten by a better competitor and has chosen to plop down on home plate with their arms crossed and pout. Meanwhile, other phone makers, namely Nokia and Microsoft, are busying themselves to make the best phones they know how, phones of their own design and style. Samsung has every right to do the same.

Samsung is still allowed to “innovate” to their heart’s desire, it’s just a foreign concept to them.

Image Credit: Dusit / Shutterstock

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