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Siri, Did You Beat The Case?

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In Friday’s title fight between the two smartphone heavyweights, the bout most certainly went to Apple. Courts in South Korea and the United States, finalized their rulings on one of the most siginificant patent infringement cases to date and while both sides were found in violation of the law in South Korea, Apple was handed a decisive victory in the U.S. Samsung was forced to pay $1.05 billion for patent infringement on several features of Apple’s mobile hardware and software designs, a serious blow to the worlds largest smartphone manufacturer. While Samsung’s loss is surely Apple’s gain, the biggest winner out of this is actually Microsoft, whose Windows Phone operating system and Nokia built smartphones don’t look or feel anything like an iPhone. Because Samsung will have to redesign its products in compliance with the lawsuit, Microsoft has yet another window to bring Windows Phone into the foreground of the smartphone conversation. 

Based on reporting from the Associated Press and the New York Times, there were two court rulings on the patent infringement claims between Apple and Samsung. The first was from courts in Seoul, South Korea who ruled that each company had infringed on some of the other’s technologies. All told Samsung lost the right to sell only one product, its Galaxy S II smartphone, while Apple lost the rights to sell the iPhone 3GS, iPhone 4, iPad 1st Generation, and the iPad 2. On face Apple seems to take the bigger loss, but the bans only apply in South Korea, Samsung’s home court and a relatively small market as far as Apple is concerned. 

The more important case was in the United States and Samsung lost on nearly every count. Internal strategy documents indicated that Samsung did in fact glean ideas from the design of Apple’s mobile operating system iOS, the iPhone and the iPad hurt Samsung’s counterclaims on infringement from Apple. The jury found that Samsung had infringed on several features of Apple’s iOS like that “pinch and zoom” gesture or the “bounce back” when reaching the end of a menu and even the overall design of the iPhone itself. The Korean smartphone giant was assesed a $1.05 billion dollar penalty for its violations, a small sum for Samsung, but certainly a symbolic win for Apple over Google’s Android OS. 

Microsoft comes out ahead primarily because Windows Phone is markedly different than Android or iOS. In the Apple/Samsung case, Samsung was found in violation because its lines of smartphones and tablets were too similar in design and function to Apple’s, a legal precedent that provides Windows Phone with a fair amount of breathing room.

In terms of actual hardware, Microsoft’s best product by far is the Lumia 900, the fruit borne of their new partnership with Nokia, and the phone doesn’t bear much resemblance any of the iPhone models still in production (iPhone 3GS, 4, and 4S). The Lumia 900 is a larger phone (5.03″ x 2.7″ x 0.45″ versus 4.54″ x 2.309″ x 0.37″), constructed of polycarbon instead of aluminosilicate glass, and its sold in Black, White, Cyan, and Magenta providing consumer with more color variety. Windows Phone 7.5 is also quite removed from iOS, easily seen with a comparison of the home screens. 

Home screen of an iPhone 4S with iOS 5.1.1This is the home screen of an iPhone 4S, running iOS version 5.1.1, which is the latest version of the software until the release of iOS 6.0 later this year. In iOS, apps downlaoded from the AppStore are arranged on a Home Screen, usually appearing in the order they were downloaded in. Users can rearrrange their applications onto any one of eleven home screens by touching and holding an app until the page of apps shakes, then using the same finger move it onto a new screen. The black blocks pictured here are known as “folders”, places were multiple apps can be stored for quick access to a specific category of apps. Users can create folders at will by moving two apps together (one atop the other) and from there add up to 12 apps and give the folder a title to describe the apps that are placed there. In general iOS allows the user to determine the organization and placement of the apps on the screen, and all personal data like, unread text messages, emails, music, photos, and games can only be accessed and updated though the application that manages the content. 

This is Windows Phone 7.5, the lastest edition of the software until versions 7.8 and 8 are released. First thing to note about WIndows Phone is that the opening screen, pictured here, isn’t called a Home Screen, it’s the “Start Screen”. This OS organizes user data into “Tiles” and “Hubs”: tiles act as links to assortments or individual pieces of data, whereas Hubs are collections of user-entered and web based data that the operating system compiles and organizes actively. Users can arrange the Tiles as they please and the Tiles update in real time (provided there’s an active internet connection). In general Windows Phone is not as aethetically pleasing as iOS, where presentational niceness is a core design consideration, so it does lack many of the animations that iOS is known for. However this is advantageous for Windows Phone because attempts to mimic these features was one of Apple’s arguements for infringement.

Losing the suit against Apple will force Samsung to redesign many of its flagship product lines in the United States, giving Microsoft a rare window of opportunity to try and get Windows Phone some time in the sun. In addition, Samsung may be forced to dramatically alter or even discontinue certain products, leaving those owners open to swing to Windows Phone. Most of the news around smartphones has centered on Google and Apple, while Microsoft rests securely in the shadow cast by iOS and Android. For Windows Phone to really grow to prominence, Microsoft needs to take capitalize on what ever time they have while Samsung regroups.

What Does This Decision Do For Consumers?

If Microsoft and Nokia are the biggest winners, then the consumer is the biggest loser. First, there’s the issue of anyone that owns a Samsung product that may have to be redesigned or discontinued if Apple ultimately comes out on top (Samsung intends to contest the ruling on appeal). Second, there’s the changes that may have to made to the Android operating system, the most widely implemented mobile operating system in the market which could negatively impact user experiences with Android that already need improving. But most importantly, a win this big for Apple is sure to spark renewed litigation and competition between the smartphone giants over patents especially ones for fundamental aspects of mobile computing technology like the shape of the device. By and large the increasing frequency of patent infringement cases is bad news for smartphone customers as companies begin to turnover product to compensate for rulings on design ownership leading to an overabundance of models to choose from and changes in software that require continual updating. 

Last Words

The US Patent Office needs to take a harder look at these patent applications in order to reduce the flood of lawsuits between these tech companies who are using patents as legal weapons to remove an enemy product from shelves. Patents were intended to reward innovation, but the vast majority of creative thinking seems dedicated to figuring out how Company A can claim they invented the rectangular shape for a tablet computer and how to force Company B to make square shaped ones.


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About Alexander J Smith III

  • I would disagree with the claim that the consumer is a loser from this. The consumer was a massive beneficiary from Apple’s 10 year investment program which produced the iPhone, totally disrupting the smartphone market. The jury verdict rewards long term programs of that kind against short term imitations.

    In as much as Android phones brought choice to the market, they also reduced it, pushing RIM close to unprofitability. If Microsoft / Nokia gain from this, then choice actually increases, because there will be three entirely distinct platforms (iOS, RIM and MS) as against the similar iOS / Android platforms.

    In reality I doubt that consumers will see any fewer phones and any significant limitations on Android phones, since Apple is happy enough to license its patents as it already does for Nokia and offered to do for Samsung. However, the distorted competition which put RIM and Nokia on the back foot because they had their own R&D costs will be reduced.