On Friday, a jury of nine unanimously decreed what we already knew: Samsung copied the iPhone. Samsung got greedy and made smartphones, for a while, that hit a little too close to Home for Apple. Samsung phones mimicked everything from the iPhone’s overall design to its Home button, and even its squared, colorful icons. Perhaps most ridiculous, Samsung, for a time, even copied the fun, uniquely Apple, rubberbanding effect that happens when you’re scrolling through data on an iPhone or iPad.
Because of how obvious this copying was, Apple has won $1 billion in damages from Samsung. This victory is huge and it may have negative impacts on phones already released and those coming out in the future. Android phones, which currently comprise 60-70 percent of all smartphones sold around the world, could lose key functionality. Many of them could be taken off the market or be drastically redesigned so that they don’t remotely resemble the iPhone. Let’s examine the ways Samsung’s loss might have screwed things up for Android users.
What’s at stake
Despite the fact that Xerox first invented things like icons, folders, and many other standards of computing devices today, both Apple and Microsoft have been working separately (together) to take down an emerging common enemy: Google. With Android, Google is becoming a big player in smartphones, tablets, and is already entering the PC space. Google built Android on top of Linux and has given it away to manufacturers for free. Microsoft hates Android because it makes its living selling operating systems, not giving them away. Apple hates Android because it is riding on the success of the iPhone, which single-handedly ignited the smartphone business, and is now becoming the Windows of the phone and tablet world.
For decades, Microsoft and Apple battled one another, but they resolved their differences long ago and signed large cross-licensing patent agreements. Apple even showed a Nokia Windows Phone at the Samsung trial as an example of a phone that isn’t copying the iPhone.
To try and stop or slow Android, Microsoft has bullied nearly every Android manufacturer into paying it licensing fees of $5-$15 per Android device sold. Apple’s preferred method of attacking Android has been to sue the pants off of every company making Android devices. Samsung and HTC have been its top targets. Apple and Microsoft probably aren’t calling each other up on the phone each night to cackle at their progress against Android, but they do have a mutual interest in keeping the status quo. Google scares them. (Learn more about how this lawsuit affects Android.)
With that out of the way, let’s press on.
Zooming is going to get difficult
Two of the key patents that the jury just upheld were for “pinch to zoom” and “double tap to zoom.” Pinching and double tapping to zoom are natural touch gestures we all use constantly to zoom in on web pages, maps, and all kinds of things on phones. Simple hand gestures should not be patentable. Regardless of my thoughts, we can expect Samsung and many other major Android manufacturers (maybe even Google) to remove this functionality from future phones and possibly from phones already on the market via an over-the-air update. How will we zoom now? Well, we’ll probably have to tap an onscreen zoom bar or something stupid. Not cool.
No “rubber banding”
While few Android phones have this effect, likely for fear of angering Apple, don’t expect any of them to gain it anytime soon. Because of this lawsuit, iOS devices will likely be the only phones that allow you to pull (stretch) a page beyond its scrolling point and then release it to watch it snap back in place. It’s purely an ornamental design element, but it is one of those small things that makes the iPhone so fun to use. Google and other manufacturers have already used bands of color and other effects to hide their mimicry of Apple’s scrolling effect. Expect more experiments in the future, but nothing that too closely resembles Apple.
No “slide to unlock”
Whether you’ve realized it or not, most Android phones have already been affected by Apple’s litigation. Though this trial didn’t involve “slide to unlock” patent at the end, other Apple lawsuits have, and you can bet that Android manufacturers are going to try to avoid any gesture or software patents Apple has actively protected. Most Android phones have already been altered to avoid breaking this patent. Most newer Android phones do not unlock with a straight left-to-right sliding motion anymore (or at least a bar that you swipe across). Expect the onscreen ways you unlock your phone to get stranger as time goes on.
>> Next page: Android could lose more than a few gestures
Multitouch gestures of all kinds banned
The Apple patent that covers “pinch to zoom” also covers a broad swatch of other gestures, some of which are far-reaching. Expect Android manufacturers and app makers to avoid supporting basic things like virtual e-book page turns, on-screen turnable dial controls (for something like volume), and moving a window or object by touching it with two fingers at the same time. And that isn’t the half of it. Patently Apple has more details, but to sum up: Apple has several patents related to radial touch menus as well — something that Microsoft has already demonstrated on Windows 8. Radial (circular) menus are probably going to become a big thing soon, but Android users could be left in the cold because Apple (and Apple licensee Microsoft) have the patents for the related gestures. The image below shows a radial touch menu in the new version of Microsoft Office.
Cooler, more futuristic gestures to manipulate 3D objects, and pull or push things into and out of the screen (in a sense), are also patented by Apple.
No universal search or Siri competitors
The Galaxy S3, Galaxy Nexus, and other Samsung phones have already had a basic feature of Android called “universal search” removed. If you’ve ever used the built-in search button or function of an Android phone, you know that you can use it to find both apps on your phone and Web results. Not anymore. Due to the legal woes of Samsung this functionality may be removed from many more devices.
Expect Apple to target makers of Siri-like applications, as well. It owns a good patent on the technology. Samsung’s S Voice app and “Google Now” are prime targets, both of which are available on top devices, like the Galaxy S3 and Nexus 7, right now. Will these features last? I’m not sure. It will be a sad day if Siri is the only voice assistant on the market: Siri could use the competition because, right now, it’s not that great.
No apps or icons can resemble iOS or iPhone
Apple won big in this case by claiming that Samsung mimicked the design of iOS icons and layouts, including a home tray of icons. Due to the strength of the decision against Samsung, Google and other manufacturers may need to rethink entire aspects of Android so that they don’t at all resemble the iPhone. A particularly crazy patent granted to Apple asserts that it basically owns the entire design and style of navigating a touch smartphone and the types of menus present on most of them today. Widgets, email apps, camera apps, grids of photos in galleries, phone apps, calendar apps, search, and even Web browsers could be targeted by Apple. This means that many apps might be redesigned or altered in ways to not resemble functionality or designs seen on the iPhone. This patent even covers the idea of a touch keyboard and displaying lists of documents.
The jury found that many of Samsung’s phones violated Apple’s patents related to outward design (things like rounded corners) and that they copied the overall outward design of the iPhone. Because of this ruling, don’t expect manufacturers to get bold enough to design phones that look like the iPhone. That means we’ll see less of them with physical home buttons (Galaxy S3), and designs may start getting stranger or packed with unnecessary flourishes to differentiate from the look of the iPhone.
Cheer up. This could be good
While the prospect of losing all of these touch and design functions sounds bad for Android, it could be just what the platform needs to push ahead. While Android has excelled up to this point, it has done so in the shadow of the iPhone. With Android 4.0, Google took its first steps toward creating its own unique-looking operating system. Lawsuits like this could fuel further innovation, and push Google to try new things that no competitors are trying. Google might truly take the lead and start guiding the industry with new features. Already, even Samsung has begun to reverse course and start innovating in recent months. With the Galaxy S3, it invented a lot of new motion-based features and even tried to solve common problems with its Smart Stay feature, which doesn’t turn the screen off if it detects that you’re reading a Web page. HTC’s camera innovations on the One X are another great example of out-of-the-box thinking. I’d love to see Android manufacturers compete more on unique features like these.
It gets better. Because manufacturers now have a billion dollar incentive to not look like the iPhone, new Android phones could really start pushing the envelope. If you’re a fan of wacky new designs — or wish phones would revert back to the “good old days” when the coolest thing about them was the crazy new way they flipped open — then this could be a good thing. At the very least, this should embolden manufacturers to try new ideas. There isn’t a good reason why all phones have to look like the iPhone. Let’s get creative, guys.
A future where no one tries to mimic Apple could be a lot better. I’d love to see innovation start where these lawsuits stop.
Update 8/27/2012: Removed a statement in “Pinch to zoom” section questioning whether or not Apple was the first company to use pinching on a touch screen. This was covered in the trial.
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