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Who will win the Apple vs Samsung patent war? And what's next?

August 8, 2012

Where did it all go wrong? Apple and Samsung were once the perfect couple, but it seems theirs was a marriage of convenience. A long, drawn-out, and deeply bitter divorce has seen the gloves come off, as these two tech giants trade blows in courtrooms across the globe. The patent war has been going on for so long now that you’d be forgiven for feeling a bit bored with the whole thing. But wait a minute, I beg your indulgence, have you considered what would happen if one of them actually emerged victorious? Let’s speculate wildly.

In the beginning

In the early years things were rosy. Samsung manufactured memory chips and Apple bought them. Both companies grew richer and all was well with the world. When the iPhone began to dominate the market, all the other smartphone manufacturers were scrambling for a way to compete and then Android rode onto the scene.

Samsung had always made its own smartphones and tablets. It was slightly unusual, in that it served as both a supplier of components and as a manufacturer of its own products. Apple first sued Samsung in April 2011 claiming that the Galaxy S smartphone and the Galaxy Tab tablet were too similar to Apple products. Even as late as August 2011 Samsung was still supplying the components Apple needed for the iPhone 4. The Economist published an infographic showing the breakdown and calculated that 26 percent of the component cost of an iPhone 4 was supplied by Samsung.

Everyone is copying us

Apple had an astounding success with the iPhone and there’s no doubt that it changed the direction of the smartphone market. Things veered away from enterprise-friendly BlackBerry devices for email and messaging, towards consumer-friendly touchscreen devices capable of delivering all sorts of content. The app explosion followed and no one could compete until Google and the Open Handset Alliance unveiled Android.

The new platform was available without a hefty licensing fee and it was relatively easy to develop apps for. Manufacturers like Samsung were quick to jump onboard. As we know from an internal Samsung memo from 2010, the company was keen to create something that could compete with Apple’s flagship device. The memo includes the line “The iPhone has become the standard. That’s how things are already.”

Clearly, Apple saw Android as an attempt to copy iOS and began to accuse everyone of stealing their ideas, cloning their designs, and infringing their patents and intellectual property.

Who has the stronger case?

The patent war between Apple and Samsung was started in the US by Apple and expanded to courts across the globe by Samsung. On the Apple side, it is about product and interface design. On the Samsung side, it is about wireless communication and call and data handling methods.

Apple appears to have the stronger hand, although disputes like this generally end in licensing agreements. The difference here is that Apple isn’t looking to settle. Mediation didn’t work, and it appears that Apple’s ultimate aim is actually to get Samsung products banned. Samsung is fighting back as aggressively as possible.

So did Samsung copy Apple? Yes and no

It’s pretty clear that Samsung has been, let’s say “inspired”, by Apple’s design. Everyone wants to emulate the market leader in an industry to some extent. Apple made some design choices that proved popular with consumers, you can’t expect other companies to reinvent the wheel. Apple’s designs were not plucked out of thin air either; they clearly built upon the work of others, that’s the way everything advances. The important point is about whether Samsung was aiming to fool consumers into seeing their devices as the same as Apple devices.

On one hand, you have ridiculous complaints relating to the shape and size of tablets and smartphones, which is surely not something Apple can claim ownership of. The majority of those designs are built that way to work well for humans. Rectangles and touchscreens should not be attributed to Apple. As Samsung pointed out, both Samsung and Sony had designs that looked like the iPhone before Apple released it.

On the other hand you can see how the Samsung icons are too close to Apple’s originals for comfort. Again some of them are just symbols that make sense, others seem to include elements that look suspiciously like copying.

So far the legal arguments have been going Apple’s way, with an injunction against the Galaxy Tab 10.1 being upheld. Apple also won some rulings in Europe. Samsung has had victories too. A UK judge ruled that the Galaxy Tab didn’t copy the iPhone and insisted Apple admit it. Apple also failed in an attempt to get the Galaxy S3 banned.

What if Apple wins?

If Apple wins, then it’s likely a bunch of Samsung devices will get banned from sale and the South Korean company will have to pay hefty compensation. Apple will also push for punitive damages.

Samsung would likely employ some quick redesigns and changes to get round the patent infringement. It is already doing this for the Galaxy Tab.

What if Samsung wins?

If Samsung wins, then the iPhone, iPad, and other devices found to infringe their patents could be banned from sale. It is likely Samsung would also seek compensation.

Apple would quickly redesign and make changes to get round the patent infringement.

What will actually happen?

There’s no way either company will win an outright victory, because they both hold a big range of patents and they’re probably both right to some extent. It’s far more likely that they will settle at some point.

In the unlikely event that this goes all the way, then they probably both have deep enough pockets to actually survive it, but the winner will have dealt their main competitor a major blow. An outright loss would be a serious setback and cost an astronomical amount of money.

For us as consumers this kind of patent war is a lose-lose proposition. The expenses incurred by both sides can only lead to higher costs for devices which will be passed on to us. An outright win would reduce competition and hand one of them an almost monopolistic position (can’t help feeling that’s what Apple really wants).

Just like real war there’s no positive outcome here.