Saturday, 25 August 2012

Apple vs Samsung: The Farce

I've always been amazed this made it to trial. It seemed like an open and shut case; one that should have been thrown out long before a jury was convened and it made headline news. Apple claimed that Samsung's mobile devices violated 6 of its patents. Today, the jury sided with Apple on 5 out of 6 of these patents, and awarded it $1bn in damages.

Has there ever been a clearer demonstration of the urgent need for patent reform? It's a system which, for hardware and software, offers little if any protection for true innovation, and has simply descended into a messy lawyer's dream of suits, counter-suits, gross monopolization, the growth of patent trolls, and the ousting of the "little guy". Which is moreorless the opposite of its claimed raison d'etre.

Groklaw describes the verdict as "preposterous"; a "farce". I describe it as a disgrace.

Take, for example, Apple patent D677. It is a patent for the design of the iPhone. It describes the front as black; flat; rectangular; 4-cornered; round-edged; containing a screen; with thin side borders; larger top and bottom borders; a top speaker; button area beneath.

Did Samsung use a similar design for some of their mobile devices? I believe so, yes. But, then again, so would almost any smartphone manufacturer. What D677 describes is a blueprint for what almost has to be to constitute a phone with a touchscreen.

Think about it. To manufacture a smartphone (and remember that Apple was not the first), you need a touchscreen (which is black, flat, and rectangular). You need to house it in a container (which will obviously need 4 corners, and unless you want your end-users to stab their hands every time they unpocket it, those corners will need to be round-edged).

The thin side borders are a simple case of ergonomics. You need to hold the device, but need to be able to touch all areas of the screen. Wide borders would make it harder to reach all areas of the touchscreen. You can't sensibly add any other useful functionality (like buttons) on the sides, since you'd accidentally hit them when using the touchscreen. Finally, small bezels look better; monitor manufacturers have promoted this as a feature for years, as have TV manufacturers, laptop manufacturers, etc.

The larger top and bottom borders are also required, because there's a lot that needs to fit into a smartphone "under the hood" - and if you make one dimension shorter, you need to make the other dimension longer, just to fit everything in.

The speaker at the top; now, that's surely something that could have been placed elsewhere? That must have been copied.

Not exactly. Remembering these are phones, consider: where is your ear in relation to your mouth? It's another case of basic human requirements.

That leaves us with the button area at the bottom. Android (like iOS) requires some hard buttons, like the home button. They have to go somewhere. For the principal buttons, putting them on the side makes them awkward to use; on the top is too far to reach for most people's hands; and the sides we've ruled out already. Where else is left?

D677 simply specifies what any smartphone manufacturer would be likely to work out for themselves within the first few days, or hours, of the design process. You need a touchscreen, buttons, speaker, mic, camera(s), battery, processor, memory, lights, connectors, etc. There are requirements posed by the OS. There are human factors to consider. Putting them all together for both Android and iOS, and with presently available hardware, you end up with something similar to D677.

The same holds for many of the other patents Apple has used to secure this $1bn ruling.

The long and short of it? Apple, somehow, holds some patents which describe obvious design points for the classes of devices called smartphones and tablet PCs. It's tantamount to a PC manufacturer waving a patent describing the design for a computer case, keyboard and monitor, and asking all the other PC manufacturers in the world to cough up royalties. Or, for a non-technological example, it's tantamount to a clothing manufacturer taking out a patent for a small handbag; tapered; with a latch in the top-centre; a long adjustable strap; and a reinforced bottom.

This case considered the similarity of the external aesthetics of the hardware, of which manufacturers of smartphones have very few choices, as I've already described. The similarity is by necessity, much like the similarity in most QWERTY  keyboard designs is by necessity. The case neglected to consider the extreme dissimilarity in every other aspect of the devices; from internal hardware, to the OSs, to the applications and services on top, to the UX, etcetera.

This particular ruling seeks to ensure that Apple alone is allowed to manufacture and sell smartphones and tablets in the US.

How? It forces other manufacturers to modify the external aesthetics of their devices to sub-standard designs, in order to differentiate them from Apple's "patents" sufficiently such that juries no longer complain. Indeed, Samsung has already started to do so, with its release of the Galaxy Tab 2 - moreorless identical to the Galaxy Tab, just with an uglier and less practical external design.

I don't blame the jury. They simply affirmed that the Galaxy S3 has a speaker at the top, a screen in the middle, some buttons at the bottom, and non-lethal corners.

It was the job of the patent examiners to ensure the validity of the patent claims at issuance; to properly inspect the claims for prior art and non-obviousness.

It would have helped if the judge had permitted Samsung the right to demonstrate invalidity by displaying the prior art.

The damage claims might have sounded less ridiculous if all the damages awarded related to the claimed violations (some figures, in the millions, were requested for Samsung devices deemed non-violating).

Finally, the case might have been more believable if it had taken a length of time to deliberate which befitted the complexity of the case.

Appeals will undoubtedly follow.