Why are Apple and Samsung throwing down? A timeline of the biggest fight in tech

Samsung vs Apple

On March 31, a $2 billion trial between Apple and Samsung began in California court. Apple is accusing Samsung of infringing on software patents related to its iPhone. If you’re feeling a sense of deja vu, you aren’t crazy. The legal battle between the two largest mobile tech companies has been raging quietly and loudly for nearly four years, and it’s set to last for at least another three.

To help catch you up (and honestly, keep track of this mess ourselves) we’ve put together a timeline of what’s happened in the last few years. If you want to know what happens when two immovable objects crash into each other, this is a good case study.

The Players

Samsung is a tech powerhouse: Not only does it make many of the components used in devices from many vendors, it owns key patents related to wireless communication technology and is the most successful Android device maker by a massive margin.

Apple arguably invented the modern smartphone and tablet: It tries to protect its products by dotting every i and crossing every t with patents on from outward design to that rubber-band stretchy effect you get on iOS when you scroll past the edge of a page or photo.

Steve Jobs iPhoneThese two companies used to get along great. Their legal battle started long after Samsung started selling Android devices. Apple founder Steve Jobs hated Android and once called it a “stolen” product — a ripoff of the iPhone. Apple’s first major clashes in the smartphone wars started with Nokia and HTC in 2009 and 2010. Why wait on bringing litigation against Samsung? In part because Apple and Samsung are also long-time partners. Apple spends billions on Samsung flash memory, screens, processors, and other components. Souring that relationship with lawsuits was risky, but eventually Apple felt it had no choice.

The Apple-Samsung Timeline

Aug. 2010: The warning

Apple warns Samsung it believes some Samsung phones and tablets infringe on Apple patents. Since Samsung is a major Apple supplier and a “trusted partner,” Apple wants to work out a deal.

Oct. 2010: The failed meeting

Apple meets with Samsung to propose a licensing deal where Samsung would pay Apple up to $30 per phone an $40 per tablet. In comparison, six months earlier HTC agreed to pay Microsoft a reported $5 for every Android device sold. Samsung declines.

April 2011: The first lawsuit, and the countersuit

Apple sues Samsung, claiming Samsung “slavishly” copied its product designs. Within days, Samsung countersues over 3G technology patents, and takes the fight international by filing claims against Apple in Japan, Germany, and Korea.

Aug. – Sept. 2011: Products pulled from shelves

Apple has sales of Samsung’s Galaxy Tab 10.1 put on hold in Australia and secures an injunction on Galaxy Tab 10.1 sales in the EU, claiming its design too closely resembled the iPad. The EU injunction is quickly scaled back to just Germany, but Apple gets the German ban extended to the Galaxy Tab 7.7.

Apple’s patents include design elements as well as slide-to-unlock, rubber-banding, and universal search features.

In the U.S., a San Jose court orders Samsung to share samples of offending devices and source code with Apple by the end of the year as part of the evidence-gathering process. Samsung tries to get the court to order Apple to disclose information about the forthcoming iPhone 5 and iPad 3; the court does not agree to this request.

Both companies start to get specific about patents at play. Apple’s patents include design elements as well as slide-to-unlock, rubber-banding, and universal search features; Samsung’s complaints center on standards-essential patents for 3G mobile technology that are supposed to be available to anyone on fair, reasonable, and non-discriminatory (FRAND) terms.

Nov. – Dec. 2011: 30 open lawsuits

Australia allows the Galaxy tablet to go on sale many months after its planned debut, but Samsung changes the design to get around the sales ban in Germany. Samsung manages to get iPhones and iPads banned in Germany for a few hours, and Apple loses a bid to block sales of specific Samsung 4G phones in the United States.

More cases get filed. The fight now spans about 30 cases spanning North America, Asia, Europe, and Australia.

March – May 2012: Settlement talks begin (and fail)

Samsung Galaxy 10.1In the United States, Apple claims Samsung violated court orders by only turning over one device with source code as part of discovery. Judge Lucy Koh orders the companies into settlement talks in late May; but a week beforehand, a U.S. appeals court says sales of the Galaxy Tab 10.1 should be blocked until a trial. To no one’s surprise, talks go nowhere, although Koh eventually rules any sales ban on the Galaxy Tab 10.1 would have to wait until the trial ended.

July 2012: Apple publicly admits Samsung didn’t copy

Samsung and Google are forced to scale back the universal search bar on the Galaxy Nexus and Galaxy S3 in response to an injunction granted by Judge Koh.

A UK court orders Apple to post public notice that Samsung didn’t copy the iPad’s design — ostensibly because Samsung’s tablets just weren’t as cool. (Apple eventually complied rather cheekily, and was forced to take a do-over.)

Judge Koh asked if Apple was “on crack” for submitting a 75-page list of potential witnesses at the last minute.

In the United States, the jury trial between Samsung and Apple opened July 22 with Apple seeking about $2.5 billion in damages. Samsung immediately incurs Judge Koh’s ire by publicly disclosing material that had been excluded from the trial and for failing to prevent deletion of relevant evidence. But Apple got dinged on evidence retention too, and at one point Judge Koh asked if Apple was “on crack” for submitting a 75-page list of potential witnesses at the last minute.

Apple and Samsung are now engaged in more than 50 lawsuits worldwide.

August 2012: Apple’s $1 billion victory

Boom. After three days of deliberation the U.S. jury sides with Apple, awarding over $1 billion in damages and finding that 26 Samsung products infringed on both Apple software and design patents. The decision is controversial, generating debate about whether the jury acted properly and if lay juries should sit on patent cases at all.

Apple quickly files a second U.S. lawsuit against Samsung, asserting 21 more devices released since August 2011 infringe on Apple patents, including the Galaxy S3 and Galaxy Note.

Oct. – Nov. 2012: Galaxy Nexus ban lifted

An appeals court lifts an injunction on U.S. sales of the Samsung-made Galaxy Nexus, which had been Apple’s strongest blow against a flagship Android product.

Dec. 2012: Apple’s patents called into question

iPad Pinch to ZoomThe U.S. Patent of Trademark Office tentatively rejects all claims of Apple’s ‘915 “pinch-to-zoom” patent, one of the most valuable multi-touch patents in Apple’s case against Samsung. While a final ruling may be years away, if the patent is invalidated it could trigger a full retrial of the first U.S. Apple-Samsung conflict. Apple maintains the patent will hold up; Samsung says they have a workaround.

Judge Koh denies Apple’s motion for a permanent injunction against Samsung. Despite Apple’s court victory, Samsung’s infringing products remain on sale.

March 2013: Apple’s victory shrinks, retrial set

Judge Koh finds the U.S. jury calculated damages incorrectly, so she invalidates $450 million of the $1 billion awarded to Apple and orders a retrial to determine proper damages.

June 2013: ITC rules iPads infringe on Samsung patents

In a surprise win for Samsung, the U.S. International Trade Commission rules older iPhones and iPads should be barred in the United States for infringing on a standards-essential patent belonging to Samsung.

Aug. 2013: ITC ruling vetoed, ITC blocks older Samsung phones

The United States Trade Representative outright vetoes the June ITC ruling two days before going into effect. Some view the decision as Apple pulling strings in Washington D.C., while others call it a victory for not allowing companies to use standards-essential patents as weapons in litigation.

A few days later, the ITC blocks some older Samsung phones from sale in the United States for violating two Apple patents.

Nov. 2013: Retrial starts, Apple seeks $379.8 million

The retrial on damages invalidated by Judge Koh gets underway. Apple seeks $379.8 million; Samsung argues the amount should be $52 million. A Samsung representative concedes in court some of its devices “contain some elements of Apple’s property.” Judge Koh awards Apple $290 million in damages, bringing the Samsung’s total penalty in the first U.S. case down from $1.05 billion to $929 million.

March 2014: Samsung asked for $1 billion, immediately appeals

The $929 million judgement against Samsung in the first U.S. trial becomes official. The next day, Samsung files a formal appeal.

Steve Jobs hated Android and once called it a “stolen” product — a ripoff of the iPhone.

The second U.S. trial gets underway on March 31. Apple seeks roughly $2 billion in damages. The second trial mostly concerns different patents and different products than the first trial. Unlike the first trial, Google may be a significant presence in the courtroom. Samsung claims four of the five patent claims against it are licensed from Google as part of Android. Samsung has withdrawn its standards-essential patents from the case.

April 2014: New $2 billion trial underway

During the first days of April, the jury was selected and Apple’s Phil Schiller sat in the hot seat.

Here’s what to expect in the coming weeks and months:

  • An initial decision (or mistrial) in the second U.S. case.
  • Samsung’s appeal of the first U.S. case, expected to hinge on the validity of key Apple patents. However, the appeals process will likely run ahead of the patent review process, putting the whole thing into question.
  • Samsung (or Apple!) appealing the second U.S. case.
  • Final rulings on the validity of key Apple patents in the first U.S. case. Even if they’re invalidated, Apple thinks the process will take at least until mid-2017.

Where we stand now

As of early 2104, Apple has been largely successful against Samsung, with the bulk of rulings and court decisions going in Apple’s favor. Apple has also struck a blow against companies (like Motorola) using predatory licensing on standards-essential patents to seek bans on competing products, and can perhaps claim a moral victory with Samsung outright admitting some of its products copied Apple technology.

However, Apple has almost nothing concrete to show for its efforts with Samsung. Apple hasn’t managed to get Samsung’s key products banned in major markets, Apple hasn’t collected a penny of damages from the high-profile first U.S. trial, and the ongoing international litigation is at best a distraction and at worst a long-term drain on the company.

(Lead image courtesy of Valentin Agapov and hurricanehank via Shutterstock)