Sunday 26 August 2012

The hidden damages to Google

So the news about the damages awarded to Apple against Samsung by the court which has been considering their intellectual property dispute has hit the headlines.  Of course the journalists have to simplify the quite complex arguments and counter-arguments made by each party for the consumption of the masses.  However lets not believe that this is all about using rectangular screens and   touch sensitive control of a phone, which some in the media have portrayed.  You only have to look at the appearance, functionality and user interface design of smartphones (and not just from Samsung) before the iPhone was launched in 2007 and then afterwards.  There is no comparison.  And I do mean compare smartphones ... we are not talking here about simple feature phones or basic cellphones.  Smartphones were being marketed and sold before iPhone, but none of them had the radical differences of the iPhone in appearance, functionality and user interface design (user experience).   I was a professional gadget guru, and even I had to do a double-take when passing the displays in carrier's shop windows at times, to blink and see if they were offering Apple's phone or new competitors in since 2008.  

Lets consider appearance.  Before iPhone it was pretty easy to see the difference at a glance between for example, a Motorola (remember them?) and a Nokia, the latter having a very distinctive shape across a huge range of phones.  The other manufacturers didn't try to make their phones look like Nokia's in appearance.  They innovated their own distinct shapes and designs, placement of buttons, colours etc.  But post-2007, it seemed like everyone's smartphones were beginning to look like iPhone.  One big screen with a similar sized bezel/outline, the same basic shape (ok most were bulkier and thicker but that's only because they couldn't copy that too - few people want a bulky handset), even a single bigger home button in many cases and even buttons and controls placed in similar places around the sides!  Note that most didn't copy the use of materials such as metal and glass, instead replacing these with plastic, which allowed them to undercut on cost/price whilst looking (but not feeling) similar.

Now the functionality.  Before iPhone in 2007, the functions even on "smart" phones were quite limited.  Remember the 'baby internet' using WAP?  No - I never used that crippled attempt at browsing the net either!  Even getting a GPRS data connection was a chore and a worry.  There were very few in-built data plans, so people tended to have to count the cost of their data usage carefully or worry and not use it at all.  And as for seamless connection without user intervention to WiFi when in range - well that wasn't implemented by the existing players because they were afraid to upset their cell-network partners by taking expensive data traffic away from them.  (So actually its not just functionality but business model innovation too).  But after iPhone, it was suddenly much simpler to use data services on a phone - so functionality of the phone was enabled!   But remember, no-one then talked about apps on their phone ... they were another radical step towards the functionality explosion on mobiles.  Yes you could add 'programs' to your phone before mid-2007, but it wasn't easy and the available software was extremely limited.  Apple innovated and made the App store model usable by the masses, (importantly including app developers).

Finally the user interface design or user experience.  Before the iPhone it was all about a fixed plastic miniature keyboard, and awkward little up/down buttons or tiny finger 'joysticks' or a stylus.  (You imagine trying to do a rotate or pinch gesture with a stylus!).  There were inaccurate touch screens using resistive technologies on other devices but not phones.  The capacitive touchscreen on the iPhone changed the experience of smartphones forever.  But even if you discount this innovation, those who copied the touchscreen could have innovated their own behaviour for that touch screen interface.  The rubber banding of the scroll bars when they reach the top or bottom of a selection is one example.  You don't need that behaviour.  It's not essential to a smartphone.  Apple did it first. Others didn't have to copy it.  Notice now I say others ... hence the title of this article.  This is not just about  Samsung (and potentially other hardware manufacturers).  They are only indirectly responsible for the User Interface and how the 'system' works.  They made a choice to go with Android, Google's mobile operating system.  They chose to launch products which rely on Android software.  So who copied the features like rubber banding of on-screen scrollbars (together with an awful lot of other 'behaviour')?  The culprits are somewhat hidden.

The win by Apple in the courts, made simpler against Samsung by both the lawyers and the media, is actually also a more complex case against Google.  The damages awarded (after any appeals etc) are of little consequence in Samsung's case (but send a message to other manufacturers) and Apple will dwarf those amounts by paying Samsung to supply huge numbers of components for current and future mobile products.  Of far more significance to Apple is the damage this inflicts on Google because of Android.  Most of the serious competitors to iPhone use Android software now.  They will be worried.  There are other ways for hardware manufacturers to design the appearance of their phones.  But there are also many more ways that they and the operating systems software players could innovate the design of the functionality and user experience of future mobile devices.  This would benefit everyone.  Let's hope they do.

And of course as technology and innovation moves on, the best ways to do standard things and implement common features emerge.  Those shouldn't be barred from being used on all devices in a particular category across all vendors.  But the answer is to acknowledge who innovated and protected that idea first, and licence the technology from them, not blatantly copy and try to get away with it until you end up in court.  There is an example of this involving the very same players.  Google innovated brilliantly with their online mapping.  Apple, recognising this, licensed Google Maps to use as a very early app on iPhone!  Is it now hardly surprising that in their next mobile operating system release that they will replace Google Maps with their own solution?!  But it isn't copying the idea.  It uses different (vector) graphics technology which has advantages when scaling the map view especially with labels and when an online connection is lost.  This is lawful innovation.

Doing the iPhone was risky, especially for a player who was a completely new entrant in the smartphone market.  Being so radical with appearance, functionality and the user experience was risky.  (I remember the nay-sayers at the time pronouncing how the touch screen keyboard would be too difficult and lots of other criticisms).  It might not have been successful, but it was, and now others strive to emulate it.  Success from risky innovation should be rewarded, not just in the marketplace but by recognition of competitors should they wish to build on it, through licensing or other agreements.  Then perhaps some of the massive amounts used for litigation could be redirected towards further R&D innovation.