The ongoing patent wars in the mobile industry will impact how devices look, although many argue over whether or not these protections will hamper true innovation.
Apple is a standard bearer in smartphones and, as such, its design decisions, like those featured in the iPhone 5, are closely watched by millions.
But Samsung may have taken the adage “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” one step too far, with a jury ruling the company “slavishly copied” Apple’s designs in a verdict that raises questions about competition and consumer choice in the marketplace.
The California court ruled overwhelmingly in Apple’s favor concerning a number of patents and ordered Samsung to pay $1 billion for infringement. The verdict itself wasn’t surprising, but both the dollar amount of the damages and the extent to which it ruled design patents were infringed upon creates a powerful precedent that will continue to play out, significantly shaping smartphone design and mobile innovation for some to come. And, depending on your point of view, that could be for better or for worse.
Some believe the trial’s outcome could spark widespread innovation, but others argue a response that forces differentiation in favor of true innovation will create a bunch of “different but dumb” designs. Either way, device makers across the industry are likely reassign their approach to design in the wake of the landmark legal ruling, a process Nokia’s new Lumia Windows phones may have the jump on.
Conflating Design With Patents
Anyone who remembers the early flip phones can testify to the evolution of many smartphone design elements we take for granted today, like the rectangular shape, responsive touchscreens, and volume and menu buttons. These were developed over time, and so the “standard” phone we have today didn’t appear out of the blue, but is rather the latest evolution, a snapshot of the journey.
Along the way, many of these design details — from the responsiveness, size and resolution of the screen to the thickness, curves or straight edges of its body — were tweaked and modified in trying to deliver the best consumer experience and stand out from the crowd. But these subtle changes proved contentious and often sparked cries of infringement in the industry, all motoring forward to be the first and best with the latest features.
In other words: The naked eye of the consumer may believe the rectangular touchscreen design is “standard” in the market, but from a legal perspective, many phone makers are trying to keep certain design features proprietary — and make rivals pay for infringing upon them.
And, where there is a lawsuit, there is money, so the race is on to secure even the smallest feature with a patent to make it proprietary and ensure a competitive edge.
Starting With Patents
Patents protect research and development by providing small-time tinkerers and large corporations with a reward for their investment in innovation. Those who take big risks or make large investments realize the possibility of a substantial reward if their ideas take off. The basic system is designed to favor big changes over small incremental improvements, challenging businesses and entrepreneurs to explore new frontiers, and not settle for things as they are.
Apple, Google and even Samsung may agree with one issue at the heart of the suit itself, that the current patent system, especially in terms of software, is broken and counter-productive, so any “win” under it is a smaller battle victory in this larger war.
Still, in the case of a phone’s design, the issue comes down to questions like what changes are distinct and worthy of protection, what makes up an existing feature and what is a real improvement or a copy. When does building on the investments of established companies cross the line and become a rip-off of the original discovery, a practice which can erode the basic patent premise and take away the incentive for companies and people to make the groundbreaking and original investments?
So in this way, the design issues at play in the courtroom ruling could be a barometer on what issues will emerge in the bigger patent debate.
In Defense of Strict Patent Protection
Those who applaud Apple’s successful attempt to vigorously defend their design patents welcome a more aggressive environment where inventors claim the full value of their inventions with increased sales or through increasingly costly licensing agreements.
These advocates assert a product’s look and feel is just as important as how it works and also point out ensuring protections for design can further American competitiveness. Today, the U.S. is one of the most innovative countries on earth and bears the brunt of the costs of research and new product development. Proponents for stepped-up intellectual property think ensuring this edge will continue to fuel research and development, attract more creative people, and transform entire industries with yet-to-be-invented technology.
Strict intellectual property protections could slow the quantity of a slew of similar designs and copycat products, but not necessarily the quality of consumer goods. If the court decision gets the industry to act differently in terms of design, consumers could see innovation like never before.
Apple could very well try some very radical external design changes with its smartphone and tablets to truly distinguish the look and feel of its products in an ever-busier market, aware their rivals are nipping at its heels.
Samsung’s loss in the courtroom may motivate the company to move away from Apple’s reference designs and the result could be some very novel devices, which appeal to consumers and stand apart visually. For that matter, all the smartphone players, including Android and Windows Phone makers could unearth unique features in their quest to steer clear of Apple’s look, feel and functionality.
There are some in the design community, especially those encouraged to follow Apple’s dominant model, which are happy with the victory. Far from thinking it will make their job more challenging, they believe moving away from Apple’s style could spur incredibly new choices.
For example, Apple’s standard rounded corners don’t have to be the norm, and designers could be encouraged to move towards creating beautiful, useful and amazing devices that are square or don’t look at all like an iPhone, adding a touch of previously unseen diversity in offerings.
The Case for a Looser Interpretation
Others point out following the logic of the jury’s ruling will hurt innovation. The idea is companies will now be motivated to make design differences just to avoid a court challenge, resulting in a host of “different but dumb” designs that don’t invite patent scrutiny but do little to foster truly creative thinking and an evolving consumer experience.
Rather than seeing the patent system working as an incentive, they view this new wrinkle as providing severe restrictions for designers who create something that could be considered too similar to the original.
For example, Apple established some new features, like pinch-to-zoom to enlarge a map on the screen. The argument follows that if pinch-to-zoom is the best way to hone in a map, it doesn’t make sense to force developers to come up with a different way to do this, solely for the sake of it being different. This could be especially important if the overall design includes another breakthrough feature that won’t see the light of day in terms of consumer adoption if it can’t use consumer-embraced pinch feature.
We know that pinch-to-zoom is now part of the universal mobile experience, and users, who didn’t have to learn a bevy of other ways to zoom, benefit more because of it. Another area where Apple cornered the market, touchscreen keyboards, illustrates the point, too. The touch keyboard offered an alternative to BlackBerry’s physical keypad, but Apple’s innovation was a springboard for other choices, like both touch and slide-out QWERTY keyboards, Swype and SwiftKey — innovations that may be too risky in a stifled design environment.
These proponents argue the move towards strong IP protections could scare off similar, but different approaches, many of which are scrapped, but whose creation is crucial to how smartphones evolve. Creativity isn’t a linear process, and designers who start with a basic design element to transform it, may be scared off from doing so by the threat of legal action.
Also, the landscape for phone designers is not an expansive one. Industrial designers are challenged in maximizing and differentiating the user experience with placement and shape of buttons, speakers, volume and possibly gaming controls on a device sized for easy portability.
This limited playing field and fear of getting new designs past growing cadres of lawyers have many thinking patent fights should be reined in and focus sharply on those examples of actual counterfeit.
Nokia Steps In While Debate Rages
Notably, the ruling of the patent case renewing debate over patents in general came right before the release of Nokia’s latest Lumia Windows phones.
Apple’s lead counsel, Harold McElhinney, used pictures of the still yet-to-be released phone during closing arguments as evidence to support the declaration, “Every smartphone does not have to look like an iPhone.” And he isn’t the only one paying attention to the Finnish handset maker’s latest efforts to rebound in a deadlocked industry.
Nokia’s Lumia 920, with its polycarbonate unibody and bold cyan colors, features a 4.5-inch curved glass display, inductive charging and NFC functionality, as well as Windows Phone 8. It offers living proof there can be innovation beyond the iPhone.
Nokia’s Marko Ahtisaari, executive vice president of design, could be acknowledging the courtroom shout-out and contributing to the current design debate when he said, “The best way to respect competition is to do something meaningfully better that’s different — not different for the sake of being different, but something that’s meaningfully different and a new expression.”
Ahtisaari said he sees a big opportunity in the sea of black and gray devices with rounded corners for a company to compete with a new and modern expression.
Whether the Apple-Samsung verdict encourages great design expression or curbs it, companies would do well to take a page from Nokia’s playbook — and consumers could hope that companies can navigate a path where different is distinctive and not just something else.
Top image courtesy of YouTube
This article originally published at Mobiledia