Apple vs Samsung: An Opinion

I’ve held off writing this piece for a few days now. Mostly to let the white haze of rage fade from my field of vision, but also to ruminate about the ruling.

I’m not going to comment about the ridiculous speed with which the jury reached the verdict, the idiocy of Samsung to even let the jury foreman on the jury at all (a calculated risk, I suppose, but a very bad one), or the saliency of Apple’s claims or Samsung’s defence.

Instead, I want to take a look at these two companies. Specifically, I want to take a look at their design philosophies, their business methods, and their supply chains. Then, finally, I want to take a look at the climate of insanity that let this lawsuit even come to trial.

Design philosophy

Apple is an odd company. They make very few products. They’re extremely secretive. They have a huge following, a huge (and, honestly, super-annoying) fanbase.

Cards on the table: I have owned two different iPods (a Nano and a Touch), and my wife owns a MacBook air and came into our marriage with a horrible white MacBook of some kind. My wife has an iPhone 3GS, and I have a HTC Desire and a Nexus 7.

Apple takes a great deal of care with their branding. They always have. Even though the old Macs look ridiculously outdated now, they were at the forefront of design culture of their time. The same is true today.

However in recent years Apple has become very minimalistic. Not only with the one-button thing (after all, remember those terribly uncomfortable unibutton mice that Apple shipped with their old PowerPC Macs… not sure if they still do that), but also with their branding. The Apple logo isn’t on the front of their device at all. In fact, they consciously avoid any branding on the front of their mobile devices.

So Apple’s branding is in fact a lack of branding. They rely on the design of the devices themselves to speak as branding. Whether or not this is a wise decision is left as an exercise for the reader, but let’s be honest… it works. It works well. It works really well.

You have to turn the device over to see the Apple logo. By the time you’ve gotten that far, you already know what the device is. This is Apple’s mindshare. Their trade dress patents reflect that. It may seem insane that Apple has patented the rectangular slab with rounded corners, but in light of the above, how could they not? Their image is exactly that: A blank slab with rounded corners and one button on the front.

Anything that looks like that screams, “This is an Apple device!”

Samsung on the other hand is a massive conglomerate that makes everything and the kitchen sink (including, I should add, a lot of the components that go into the iPhone and iPad). By the way, when I say they make the kitchen sink, I mean it literally. They have a line of kitchen sinks. I’m not kidding. Google that shit.

Samsung has no design philosophy, unless you consider “release anything and everything” to be a philosophy. The fact that they make everything and the kitchen sink is an opportunity for some massive synergies that they don’t seem to be able to capture. But that’s Samsung for you.

That said, they make great hardware. Clearly. Again, their hardware is in all Samsung phones… and in all iPhones. They know how to make components. They just lack a visual identity.

So let’s be honest here. Samsung copied Apple. Their devices, while slightly different sizes, were for a while essentially photocopied Apple devices. They made them look almost exactly like Apple devices, all the way down to the lack of branding on the front.

Now, they’ve stopped doing this now, and their flagship phones and tablets are starting to take on a sort of Samsung-ish visual language of their own (in other words, not very cohesive, and also to my eye, not very beautiful). This is something that HTC and Motorola have tried very hard to do, and have basically failed. If you consider the bubbly looks of most HTC phones, with their plastic moulded bumpers and screens that seem to emerge from the device, you can see that they’re at least trying (for the most part) to implement their own design philosophy. Motorola on the other hand has veered off toward the industrial, giving their devices hard corners and geometric designs. Some of these, such as the Droid Razr, look quite unique and actually quite nice. Others look like ground up shit on a plate.

The point it, Samsung looked at the market, looked at what it took to be successful in the market, and did that thing. They copied Apple’s design philosophy so closely that certain Apple and Samsung devices are virtually indistinguishable. And it worked. Samsung and Apple now rake in most of the profits in the smartphone sector. Samsung got there, in part, by efficiently copying Apple.

Obviously, this is a problem for Apple. Samsung is going to dilute their brand with, essentially, cheap knock-offs. They’re going to tarnish the lustre of Apple’s reality distortion field (the one that makes people grossly overpay for a mobile device).

Now, Apple should never have been allowed to patent the trade dress of a simple geometric shape with no branding. This is patently ridiculous. Pardon the pun. If you choose to base your brand on looking a certain way, and that certain way is basically Euclidean geometry, you deserve to be punished in the marketplace. Your device and your brand deserve to be knocked off, they deserve to be diluted. Apple made that bed. It should have to lie in it. I mean, there’s no easy way to get around that. And they clearly must have known that this would be a problem. There are only so many ways to make a tablet or a phone. Apple should not be able to own the most sensible (and most historically implemented) device design.

But they do own that. That’s been determined in court. (Though this could be a good thing: There are other ways to design a device that do not look exactly like an Apple device. Innovation in phone design can only be a good thing. Look for instance at the newer Nokia phones. They’re beautiful, or at least their renders are beautiful, as I’ve never seen a newish Nokia phone in person ever, not once, and they look nothing like an iWhatever.)

Samsung took a shortcut to success and now they’re paying for it. It’s not just, it’s not right, but it is the way it is. Until something changes with the way software patents and trade dress patents are awarded in the US, this lawsuit crap is just not going to stop. Apple has opened pandora’s box here. They nuked Russia, and the fallout is just going to spread and spread.

Business methods & manufacturing process

This is something I’ve wanted to get off my chest for a while. I want to talk about something only tangentially related to the case, and that is the way that Apple does business and manufactures devices, vs the way everyone (and I mean everyone) else does.

In case you haven’t noticed, it looks like Apple only makes a handful of devices. This is actually not true at all. They make a handful of lines of devices, but they make quite a few devices at the same time.

This manufacturing and marketing philosophy is what I call the Moore’s Law Supply Chain.

Apple doesn’t want to be seen as a maker of crappy phones and outdated hardware. That’s not to say that they don’t make crappy phones (the iPhone 3gs, still in production as far as I know, is a remarkably shitty phone compared to just about everything else, including but not limited to the HTC Desire that I still use to this day). They just don’t want to look like they make crappy phones.

So they have one line of phones, and that’s called the iPhone. Maybe one day they’ll have two, one big and one small, but right now they just have one. But they still sell three different phones. The iPhone 4S gets all the attention, and the downmarket folks buy the 4 or the 3GS. When the 5 comes out, it will get all the attention, but mark my words, they’ll still sell the 4 and 4S, even though soon the iPhone 4 will be a remarkably shitty phone compared to just about everything else on the market.

They do this because they need a cheap phone for people who want cheap phones but don’t want an Android for whatever reason. They need to satisfy the full spectrum of consumers.

Apple can do this because the manufacturing process for the 3GS is so well known, and the components so cheap, that they can make it for a fraction of the price of their latest gear, sell it for a fraction of the price of their latest devices, and still make a killing on it.

So they preserve their profits all the way down the line (and this is something Apple will never, ever compromise on; if there comes a day where Apple is cutting their margins to sell more phones, the Apple that Steve Jobs helmed will well and truly be dead and gone), and preserve their brand image as well.

Of all the things that Apple has done to the mobile device sector, this is the one that I respect them most for. I don’t think they invented this practice, but they’ve certainly perfected it. The Moore’s Law Supply Chain is both savvy and exceedingly clever.

Samsung, HTC, and Motorola, on the other hand, release a wide spectrum of phones every year. And throughout the year. Instead of capitalising on a simplified command structure (less infighting, fewer managers and staff needed, no silos, everyone working on the same flagship products instead of 10 teams working on 10 different products), a simplified manufacturing process and supply chain (as detailed above), and brand focus (the iPhone can launch with a bang every 1 – 2 years because there is literally no other Apple phone to steal the spotlight), they’ve managed to dilute their own brand in their own markets.

Where Apple has to fear people like Samsung eating their design lunch, Samsung has more to worry about from itself! They have so many wildly varying devices for every conceivable lifestyle, desire, and taste that they can’t bring themselves to focus on just one thing.

Now, this is changing. Motorola under Google is doing away with this. Samsung seems to be focusing on the Galaxy line. But still they have a wide array of phones with long, stupid, acronym-laden names. They should have 3 phones, max. A small, a medium, and a big one. The Whatever, the Galaxy, and the Note. You can sell last year’s Whatever or Galaxy or Note to the hillbilly who wants a $99 smartphone.

Can you see how these companies are laden down by their desire to produce everything for everyone? They have this problem with everything they build. Have you seen how many different kinds of televisions Samsung makes? Or their appliance line? It truly boggles the mind. Their market segmentation department must be staffed by coked-up monkeys. I swear.

So that’s that.

Patents are bad, etc

Now. As for the prevailing patent paradigm, things obviously have to change. Some of the patents that Apple asserted in their trial were absolutely trivial or had a lot of prior art behind them.

I can only wonder at the staggering amounts of money that must go into stockpiling these nonsense patents. Imagine right now the research departments at all the major mobile tech companies, and how much effort they must be going through to come up with new and more obvious things to patent. Just so when the time comes they can legislate. This is innovation for the sake of mutually assured destruction.

It’s insane.

There has to be some sort of massive change in the winds of patents in the US. There has to be. Even congressmen must be able to see that the situation in the mobile market right now is completely untenable.

We have a company, Apple, who is using a set of (again, let’s be honest here) ridiculous patents to restrict my choice in devices both now and in the future, and causing an innovation vacuum as other companies scramble to adapt to this new, restrictive reality.

There’s no room for new entrants in a market like this. The cost of licensing or the cost of being sued into the ground: Take your pick.