Apple vs Samsung: The defense of common sense
The transpiring events of Apple’s lawsuit against Samsung divides the technology industry and hones in on several overarching intellectual property talking points and issues that far extend the perpetual "eye for an eye" battle the companies occupy. Many writers and pundits state that the lawsuit will be a primary stepping stone to IP and patent reform and will be a primary decider of the future of patent law in the technology industry.
What the trial really rises to the surface: the two differing approaches with which Apple and Samsung view the situation. Apple’s perspective hinges on protecting the intrinsic and unique value of their intellectual property, whereas Samsung focuses more on the end game of consumer perception.
What both these approaches share: none can be tied to any semblance of pure rationality or cold hard facts; there’s no way to say with certainty, for example, that the use of a certain color scheme in Samsung’s iconography directly led to loss suffered by Apple, nor can it be said that Apple’s design is generic and therefore should offer no direct or exclusive benefit to the company. Both these conclusions assume direct causation and attempt to put some logic behind something that inherently isn’t logical -- perception and behavior.
Not so Sensible
In Samsung's defense, many apologists make the common-sense argument, which is once again based purely on perception. What one deems to be common sense could be grounded in a variety of experiential factors, but nonetheless the argument of common sense and obviousness does bring to light several indisputable points.
Like the color green, for instance; Samsung has vehemently argued that the green phone icon can’t possibly go any other way. After all, green as a universal standard means "go" and if that color was to be attributed to any basic function of a smartphone it would most certainly be its namesake -- the phone.
But, of course, the common-sense argument goes much further than that and not particularly in Samsung’s favor. Based on experience and past evidence, we can conclude that it’s easy to argue common sense when it’s already been successfully implemented by someone else. After all, if a successful implementation of something proves nothing else, there is indeed at least some sense behind it.
A look at Samsung's phones pre-iPhone and post-iPhone display a fairly damning picture of this notion. Samsung’s pre-iPhone lineup is seemingly laden with devices thrown into market with the hope that something would stick, whereas Samsung’s post-iPhone lineup is the polar opposite exhibiting uniformity and purpose in form factor and design.
Nokia in their heyday, before the iPhone, were recognized for the pure variety of their handset lineup and also the mindless creativity in the design of many of their devices. Essentially Nokia defined cool in the cellphone industry, and that coupled with economies of large scale moved phones effortlessly off the shelves. Nokia’s approach of spread therefore was deemed an obvious and logical means with which to penetrate the cellphone market -- and Samsung followed suit.
Flipping the Paradigm
Apple’s iPhone literally flipped this paradigm and showed that a device that exhibited simplicity in lineup and product could move even faster off the shelves. Simplicity and fluidity in design are two aspects that make the iPhone sell, so why not emulate that? And why would you do it any other way, it’s just common sense.
Obviously these successful approaches have sense and prudence, but a nascent notion that a new-found successful way is the only appropriate way is far off base -- this point alone is the most prominent gaping hole behind the "common sense defense" that no doubt Samsung has in its card and many of Samsung’s supporters are ready to play in heated fanboy debates. Whether Samsung had or hadn’t the intention of copying Apple’s design is not the epicenter of the debate, it’s that Samsung, regardless of intent did produce a design that resembled Apple’s when other options were and are available.
It’s difficult to think laterally when there’s a standard that’s trying to be reached -- that is, Samsung would certainly have found it a mind-stretch to build a differentiated product when the iPhone in all its rounded rectangle and gridded icon glory was the benchmark to reach. It is a sound presumption that a Samsung product would brandish much more originality if the company were forced to think and develop from the ground up instead of basing thought around a readily set standard.
It doesn’t make it easier when the design that the frontrunner has settled on, despite not being the sole logical approach, is certainly one that exercises basic no-frills simplicity to its absolute core. To think of a logical and aesthetically pleasing design as simplistic as the original iPhone is a tall ask, and the case applies even more so with the iPad, which is essentially a skeletally bare slab of aluminium and glass. And what’s more simple than an evenly arranged grid of uniformly shaped icons?
Devin Coldewey of TechCrunch alludes to this point better than anyone else in his article "Tablet Zero" from December of 2011. Apple went out of their way to develop a design so generic that its form would become the start line for any manufacturer willing to join the race. As Devin Coldewey writes: "You can’t make a Xoom without making an iPad first, just like you can’t make a die without making a cube first. This was Apple’s stroke of evil genius".
Apple’s sly tactics are still no excuse and can’t form the basis of a defense for Samsung, because even though claiming ownership to a generic form factor and design shouldn’t be allowed, this doesn’t change the fact that there are still many unexplored opportunities that make equally as much sense and are equally as feasible regardless of whether they’re as simple or not. A black slab of glass is not plainly a given in smartphone hardware design and the rounded rectangle icon style isn’t any more commonsensical or intrinsically better than the tile-based UI in Windows Phone.
Sure Apple gets the perhaps unfair advantage of having their all-encompassing design immediately compared against competing alternatives, but that’s just one of the perks of getting to market first. Apple deserves credit where credit is due.
The underlying point is that there are still plenty of opportunities to make a functionally and useably better device without aligning with Apple’s plan of attack so closely. That being said, there are far too many ways for a design to be commonsensical to excuse Samsung’s phones of bearing such a level of similarity, no matter how significant the granular details. This is a gaping hole in the entirety of Samsung’s defensive case.
Jeremy Liu is a high school student who first became obsessed with technology in the 8th grade when his father bought him an iPod touch after months of begging. At a time when iPhones and the iPod Touch were spectacularly rare, the device managed to fascinate both himself and his friends. Liu now shuns the mainstream and roots for underdogs, owning a Windows Phone, Blackberry PlayBook and Sony Walkman X. Since then technology has grown from a passion to an obsession and he now directs his energies towards writing. You can find him on Facebook, Google+ and Tumblr.