Saturday, August 25, 2012

The Apple-Samsung Verdict: Ultimately, it's better for everyone (except, perhaps, developers)

Yesterday's overwhelming court victory by Apple over Samsung in U.S. Federal Court is only one of many such cases being tried around the world, but it may be the most important. The jury's decisions may eventually be revised or overturned on appeal, but the results give a blueprint for how other such trials between Apple and Android licensees are likely to play out.

[Update, August 26, 2012: Groklaw reports that the speed of the jury's decision, given the 109 pages of jury instructions and 700 questions that the jury had to answer, and the speed with which the jury reconciled two obvious inconsistencies in its verdict, suggest that the jury raced through the judgment process without the necessary consideration. That conclusion is supported by a quote (albeit hearsay) in the blog The Verge: "The foreman told a court representative that the jurors had reached a decision without needing the (Judge's) instructions." CNET carried another quote, from a jury member, suggesting that the foreman led the jury to make a speedy but insufficiently considered set of judgments against Samsung. For these and other reasons, Groklaw believes that the jury's ruling won't stand.]

If you think back before Apple released the original iPhone, there was enormous diversity in mobile phone design. Motorola shook things up with its Razr; LG had its Chocolate phones, and Danger designed innovative early smartphones. And, of course, there was RIM with its keyboard-based BlackBerry models. Now, at least when they're turned off, there's very little difference between the smartphones from Apple, Samsung, LG, Motorola, Nokia and many other vendors. They're rectangular, fairly thin phones with touchscreens. Even RIM's new BlackBerry 10-based smartphones are going to be keyboard-free.

The Apple-Samsung ruling means that Android licensees are going to have to carefully scrub their smartphones of user interface features similar to those of Apple. Google is going to have to deliver a base version of Android that does the same thing. In addition, the physical designs of smartphones are going to have to become much more diverse. I see that as an opportunity, not a liability. Cars all have the same basic functional elements, but a Fiat 500 looks dramatically different inside and out than a Mercedes E-Class sedan.

There's a lot of room for creativity in smartphone design, and it's time for Apple's competitors to exercise that creativity. Phones could have displays that are designed to be used in landscape, rather than portrait, mode. They could fold up and have a top and bottom display. They could have displays on the front and back. There's a lot of creativity in Japanese phone designs, and that could become a model for the rest of the world.

The biggest problem facing smartphone designers is maintaining a consistent environment for app developers. Android developers are already confronted with a bewildering combination of screen sizes and versions of the operating system. There are over 1,000 different devices that developers could write for, but the reality is that they target a few popular devices and hope for the best. The problem will only get worse with more screen sizes and Android user interface customizations, and Google and its licensees are going to have to make it easier for developers to accommodate those variations.

It's time for someone to think outside the box and design a smartphone that makes the iPhone look outdated.
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