Friday, August 3, 2012

That distant sound you hear is Apple and Samsung slamming into each other in a San Jose courtroom like two bighorn rams vying for dominance. Apple says Samsung stole its ideas; Samsung says it had similar ideas first.

For many, it’s a simple patent case that will be won or lost based on the evidence of inspiration. Yet what’s at stake is more than the $2.5 billion Apple wants from Samsung’s hide it’s the future of innovation, and maybe even the very definition of an idea.

Apple and Samsung’s multi-billion legal battle over curves, colors and button placement is easily one of the most compelling and important patent cases in recent history. It could decide the future of Samsung’s mobile business in the U.S., at least.

The revelations coming out of the trial (and outside of it) are nothing short of stunning. Court documents and purposely leaked product plans have revealed the road to the first Apple iPhone and the Samsung’s pre-iPhone plans to make a button-free, slab-style phone.

This tit-for-tat will go on for weeks, as both sides try to prove to a jury that they alone came up with the idea for a rectangular, curved edge, all black gesture-ready smartphone device. The jurors will sit there trying to be impartial, like they’ve never owned or used a smartphone like the iPhone or Samsung Galaxy S III.
Everyone knows these phones and handsets like them. Touchscreens are everywhere. Icon-based interfaces are the standard.

I worry that the argument in the jury room will quickly devolve into an iOS versus Android debate. And yet the kind of questions at stake are more about design: Who came up with the idea of a curve first? Who thought of making a phone black and button-free first?

Obviously, neither Apple nor Samsung invented the rectangular phone with curved edges or tablet-like gadgets. Touch-screen PDAs go all the way back to the 1990s. Tablets also existed, though they were pretty much useless. But these early products clearly influenced every company that has since built smartphones and tablets. How could they have not?

To know what works, you have to know what didn’t work and you also have to recognize the handful of good ideas in those failed enterprises.

Apple is seeking billions in damages because Samsung lifted its ideas. Apple is partially right. Samsung was clearly influenced by the iPhone. Samsung admitted this on day one of the trial, stating: “the iPhone was an inspiring product to everyone. Being inspired by a product is called competition. It’s not copying.”