Apple may have earned a favorable judgment in its latest court battle over patents, but Samsung is the one laughing all the way to the bank. A California jury awarded Apple a mere $119.6 million in damages rather than the $2+ billion it was seeking.
It may not have been the ideal result for Samsung, but it could have been far, far worse. It amounts to a symbolic victory for the Korean electronics giant, and by proxy, Google. The trial was, after all, just the latest battle in Apple’s war against Android, which Steve Jobs once said he’d go “thermonuclear” to destroy.
With this judgment, that war now appears to be winding down. And that, in the end, is good news for consumers.
A poor sequel
Back in 2012, the original Apple v. Samsung was called the “trial of the century,” and only semi-ironically. Apple emerged victorious, earning a judgment of more than $1 billion. And although that figure was knocked down significantly in later rulings, the initial result sent a message to anyone on Team Android to tread lightly as it tried to find a place in the market for its products.
Fast-forward to 2014: Apple v. Samsung 2 certainly feels less momentous. Like a confused movie sequel, the arguments were repetitive and less relevant, and the ending didn’t have the same clout. Samsung even delivered a notable blow by convincing the jury that Apple infringed on one of its patents (the hit was only worth $158,400, but still).
It’s possible Apple may get a better judgment on appeal, and it may yet score greater victories over Samsung (and others) in future court battles. But I doubt it. That’s because as mobile technology — and Android in particular — has become more sophisticated, the ability to differentiate has increased dramatically.
The Android phones of today look much different than the ones from a few years back. It’s notable that most of the phones cited in Apple’s lawsuit actually debuted in 2011, when the flavor of Android was version 2.3 “Gingerbread.” With Android 4.0 “Ice Cream Sandwich,” the OS began to solidify its own look and feel, which was — is — markedly different from iOS.
That departure has continued with “Jelly Bean” (versions 4.1-4.3) and “KitKat” (4.4). Today it would be hard to make the case that any significant release from a major Android manufacturer was just an iPhone knock-off (there will always be flash-in-the-pan imitators from questionable brands).
True, patent trials are about specific implementations of features, not overall look and feel, but even on that score Android has evolved. As Foss Patents observes, Android manufacturers have successfully created software workarounds for nearly all of the iOS features that Apple protects. The only exception is “rubberbanding” — when you pull a menu downward with your finger and it bounces back up.
The trial result is a validation that consumers today can choose from more phones, with more sophistication and more kinds of designs and features, than ever before. When you look at an iPhone 5S and a Samsung Galaxy S5, you can see the two phones share the same roots, but they’re completely different devices.
That a plus for anyone buying a smartphone, even if Apple carries some understandable bitterness for having defaulted to “the developer for the world” — the sound bite its chief executives often fall back on when explaining why the company needs to sue everybody.
There may yet be another sequel to Apple v. Samsung. It could be a pathetic, straight-to-video affair where the stakes are even lower and the result even less memorable. Or it could be a reboot, a new kind of battle fought in the arena of wearable technology or web services.
For now, though, the result is clear: Samsung has staved off Apple to fight another day. But that future battle might never need to happen now that it’s apparent the mobile world has moved on. The quickening march of progress just might mean that these tiresome patent wars are getting left behind.
By Pete Pachal