Apple's win may be a good thing for Android
This article may contain personal views and opinion from the author.
Let's start out by facing a few facts: first, Apple's win over Samsung was big, and well deserved under the current set of laws, but it is not spelling out doom for Android any more than it is likely to catapult Apple to being the smartphone leader again. Second, the ruling was much more a loss for Samsung than it was a loss for Android as a whole. And, third, there's a fair chance that this ruling is going to be a good thing for Android, because this lawsuit wasn't nearly as much about patents in the way we normally think of them, and much more about design.
Apple won this lawsuit pretty easily from all accounts. Samsung's case that it didn't model the Galaxy S and TouchWiz after the iPhone felt a bit flimsy to begin with, but now that we're hearing the story from the jurors, it seems like the case wasn't even close. Say what you will about the companies and the trial, but the jurors saw every piece of evidence (no one else can say the same) in order to make the decision, and word has it that the decision was essentially made from day one. Samsung copied Apple in an inappropriate way and was punished for it.
But, here's the thing: Samsung copied Apple's "trade dress" in a way that was inappropriate, which means that as long as an Android device doesn't look like an iPhone, this ruling doesn't really mean all that much. Let's look at some of the patents that were an issue. There were four patents dealing with essentially design issues:
- '381 Patent - mainly regards the "rubber band" bounce-back effect on scrolling, although it could affect multi-touch issues (but it seems in regards to this case, it was mostly the visual effect).
- D '677 Patent - relates to the design of the front face of the hardware
- D '087 Patent - relates to the "ornamental design" of a phone
- D '305 Patent - relates to the rounded square icons on a black background
Then, there were two patents that could be an issue for Android in general:
- '915 Patent - the one that can be an issue because it mainly deals with the device recognizing a multi-touch input rather than single-touch.
- '163 Patent - deals with double-tapping to zoom
So, there are technical patents that could pose a problem, but those are the types of patents that we talk about whenever we get a bit amped up and rant about how broken the patent system is. We may not like it, but according to the current rules, they are valid. If you want that to change, we'd suggest getting behind a cause like the EFF's Defend Innovation campaign. Those are also patents that are going to have to go through a couple more lawsuits that are more specifically about those issues before they really begin to cause problems . And, if they do become an issue, you know what we're likely to see come in to replace those interactions? Touchless control. The innovation already exists to avoid Apple's patents altogether, they just have to be put into devices.
Then, we look at all of the issues that Samsung was punished for that really led to that $1+ billion fine, and the prevailing issue is Apple's trade dress. Samsung tried to make the Galaxy S and especially TouchWiz look like the iPhone and iOS. Sure, consumers probably could have told the difference based on the fact that one phone had an Apple logo, and one had the name Samsung emblazoned across the front, but it's hard to argue that early TouchWiz didn't look an awful lot like iOS.
Again, the issue as to whether design features should be allowed to be patented isn't the issue (and if you're really annoyed, once again we'll point you to the EFF's Defend Innovation campaign). According to the rules right now, Samsung infringed on Apple patents, and even if the patents didn't exist, what Samsung did is something deserving of punishment. This isn't a case of some no-name toy company making a "PolyStation" that's sold for $20 in small toy shops, because that sort of thing doesn't make any difference to a product like the PlayStation. This is a huge international company making a device that is strikingly similar to another and making a ton of money off of it.
But, that really doesn't matter to the Android ecosystem as a whole, that is purely a Samsung issue. As long as Samsung changes TouchWiz (which would make a lot of people happy anyway), and is a bit more conscious about designing its handsets (which it has been more recently), the problems for the Android ecosystem are minimal. We certainly won't see this sort of lawsuit go against HTC, because the Sense UI bears no resemblance to iOS, and the same goes for MotoBlur, Sony's Timescape, or Google's stock Android UI. The ecosystem innovated well past Apple's stark and simple UI pretty quickly, it was only Samsung that stuck around too long on the simple side.
It's certainly possible that this ruling will leave an opening for BlackBerry or Windows Phone to pick up some market share, because Samsung is likely to drop a bit, but it's also just as possible that HTC, Motorola, Sony, LG, Huawei, or ZTE Android devices fill in the gaps left by Samsung. Patents are designed to foster innovation, and when it comes to making devices that don't infringe on Apple's design patents, the innovation has already happened. And, as far as the patents that deal with multi-touch (which we do still feel like is akin to patenting how to peel a banana), the technology already exists to move past that, if the patents really do stand up to further scrutiny.
There is no mobile platform around that moves as quickly as Android, so it's easy to imagine that devices will evolve in whatever areas it is needed. We're not seeing Apple suing over current devices that are supposedly "copying" current iPhones. We're seeing Apple sue mainly over devices that are either gone, or will soon be gone from the market. Perhaps now devices can compete on features rather than patents, but if not, we'll just leave this right here.