“Smart” about Smartphones

by | Jul 26, 2018

The biggest patent battle to date has finally come to an end after seven years between Apple and Samsung over infringement of various design aspects involving smartphones. With the number of smartphone users globally expected to surpass 5 billion in 2019, it seems smartphones are in everyone’s hands connecting users instantly to the world.

With claims of ‘innovation’ and ‘ingenuity’ from the world’s largest technology companies, the price of these devices is increasing. Yet, one can’t help but acknowledge that on the surface there is little separating the design of the world’s most popular devices, or for that matter, most of the smartphones in general. There have been patent conflagrations regarding this very issue between telecom giants over a prolonged period of time.

Examples include:

2007 is widely considered as the year that revolutionized the world of portable devices. Phones aren’t just phones, rather they became the pinnacles of handheld multitasking devices. Steve Jobs pulled the iPhone out of his pocket, heralding the beginning of the smartphone boom. As phone makers and telecommunication giants have vigorously competed with each other by producing similar-but-slightly-different devices every year, it seems we’ve reached such a saturation point that it has become difficult to recognize one phone from the other. Smartphone makers have struggled in recent times to innovate and stay alive as this process has happened.

It is this author’s opinion that phone manufacturers must become even closer to their consumers to learn exactly what they want. However, this imperative must be balanced with the practicalities in innovation, operating and litigation costs involved. Multimillion dollar lawsuits in patent infringement regarding this very specific issue are prolific. Illustrative of this trend:

  • In April 2011, Apple Inc. (Apple) sued Samsung Electronics, Co., Ltd. (Samsung) and argued that certain design elements of Samsung’s smartphones infringed on specific patents for design elements in the iPhone that Apple holds (Darts reference: N.D.Cal._5-11-cv-01846_1 darts-735-487-A-en), Apple won a $539 million jury award against Samsung in May in a retrial over damages stemming from their original showdown in federal court in San Jose, California (Darts Reference: N.D.Cal._5-11-cv-01846_20180524_3806 darts-077-290-F-en), Part of that money had already been paid to Apple before a Supreme Court ruling on how damages were calculated, as was a $119.6 million verdict against Samsung that was upheld on appeal. (Darts Reference: fcg161206163_20161206 darts-675-980-D-en-2).

As technical advances accelerate exponentially, design has returned to the black rectangle with a touchscreen as the preferred standard format. It can be argued that we’ve now reached a technology plateau where firms compete by offering marginal changes around the edges. In this author’s opinion, what drives the design functionality aspect of smartphones is consumer demand, nowadays we see phones having 6 inch screens making them ideal for watching videos and movies on-the-go or having a front flash with the front facing camera for better pictures, these changes are the result of changing dynamics within the consumer market.

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