Apple v. Samsung: The Trial Goes On, but It’s Already Over

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The patent trial of Apple v. Samsung has been fascinating to read about if you’re interested in either company’s inner workings. So far, we’ve learned that one Samsung executive freaked out about the iPhone, that Apple considered making a car and that Samsung’s 7-in. tablet spurred Apple’s interest in a smaller iPad.

But as the Loop’s Jim Dalrymple argues, beyond the juicy highlights, it seems the purpose of the trial — at least from Apple’s perspective — escapes most people:

This lawsuit isn’t about getting compensation for products that were released in 2007 or even 2011, it’s about protecting the products that will be released in 2013 and 2015 and beyond.

Dalrymple writes that Apple is no doubt planning more revolutionary products in the coming years (like a TV perhaps). The lawsuit is all about stopping Samsung now and sending a message to other companies about the ramifications of copying. That’s more important than the $2.5 billion for which Apple is suing.

It’s an astute observation, but I’d like to add to it: by taking the case this far, I think Apple already got what it wanted.

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Earlier this year, Ron Amadeo of Android Police analyzed the design of Samsung’s Galaxy S III and called it “the first smart phone designed entirely by lawyers,” because it avoids nearly all of Apple’s trade-dress claims against earlier products. Unlike Samsung’s previous Galaxy S phones, the S III doesn’t have a perfectly rectangular shape with uniformly rounded corners, and size of the bezels on each side of the screen are not equal. Samsung also abandoned the colorful square app icons found in earlier versions of its software and removed the stationary app tray from the phone’s app list. From these observations, Amadeo concluded that Samsung designed the Galaxy S III so it’d be safe from future legal attacks.

Looking at Samsung’s upcoming Galaxy Note 10.1 tablet, I get the feeling that the same strategy is in play. While Samsung’s original Galaxy Tab 10.1 looked a lot like Apple’s iPad, the Note 10.1’s design seems tailored to avoid resemblance. In landscape mode, the bezel thins out around the sides so it’s not evenly sized all the way around. Outside the bezel, there’s a silver frame that runs around the front of the tablet, also unevenly sized, with speakers that throw off the device’s symmetry. Anyone with a clue wouldn’t mistake the Galaxy Note 10.1 for an iPad.

If Apple hadn’t sued Samsung over its designs, do you think today’s Galaxy phones and tablets would bear so little resemblance to the iPhone and iPad? I think not.

Maybe if Samsung prevails in this lawsuit, it’ll go back to designs that more closely resemble Apple products, but I doubt that as well. Win or lose, Samsung’s reputation is getting dinged in this trial. Its earlier products do look a lot like Apple’s, even if they haven’t violated patent law, and that’s what the public sees as this case plays out. That’s why you see Conan O’Brien poking fun at Samsung, and not Apple, in a comedy skit. If Samsung has any pride, it’ll keep producing designs that don’t invite accusations of copying (and the sales will keep rolling in).

As Dalrymple notes, $2.5 billion is chump change for Apple. In the scheme of things, it’s not even that much for Samsung, which made $5.9 billion in profits last quarter alone. The bigger issue in this case is whether Samsung can continue to make its products look like Apple’s.

Recent products suggest that Samsung has already moved beyond that. The legal pressure has already been applied. In the future, may the best product win.

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