What the Apple vs. Samsung Verdict Means for You (Hint: Don’t Panic)

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Lee Jae Won / Reuters

Apple's iPhone 4s (L) and Samsung's Galaxy S III (R).

Apple won a decisive victory against Samsung in court last week when a jury awarded $1.05 billion in damages to Apple for Samsung’s infringement of design patents, software patents and trade dress.

That chunk of change will make a nice addition to Apple’s already-overflowing coffers, but the damages alone don’t mean much for the phone-buying public. The bigger question is how the verdict will affect Samsung, other device makers, the Android platform and the smartphone and tablet markets in general, both now and in the future.

(MORE: Verdict Reached in Apple vs. Samsung Patent Case)

Unfortunately, nobody knows the answer right now–though there’s no shortage of prognostications. The ultimate outcome really depends on the post-trial process, Apple’s next moves and a mound of other ongoing litigation.

So instead of making grand predictions, I’m going to focus on what we do know, and what we can reasonably expect from here:

Older Samsung Phones Face Injunctions

Earlier today, Apple asked for U.S. sales bans on a list of Samsung phones. That list includes the Galaxy S II (AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile variants), Galaxy S 4G, Galaxy S Showcase, Galaxy Prevail and Droid Charge. A hearing on the matter is set for September 20.

All those phones are at least 10 months old, but they’re still available as low-cost options through their respective wireless carriers. They’ll have to be removed from store shelves if the injunction goes through, but for the moment, nothing is banned.

Newer Samsung phones, such as the Galaxy S III, Galaxy Nexus and Galaxy Note, weren’t on trial. Apple may go after those phones next, but as I’ve written before, Samsung has veered sharply away from Apple-like designs in its latest products, so future cases would likely focus on software patents. (We’ll get to more on software shortly.)

Of course, if you already own a Samsung phone, rest easy; no one’s going to take it away.

Other Android Phone Makers Aren’t Samsung

Apple has ongoing litigation against HTC and Motorola, but neither of those cases involve trade dress, which deals with design aesthetics. When you look at phones like Motorola’s Droid Razr, or HTC’s Droid Incredible, you can see why: To differentiate, HTC and Motorola rely on little tricks such as asymmetric trim on the top and bottom bezels, corners that don’t result in perfectly rounded rectangles and the use of different colors besides black with silver trim.

Again, even Samsung has employed some of these methods to give a distinctive look to its newer phones. In that sense, the fallout from Apple’s lawsuit has already happened.

(MORE: How Apple Got What It Wanted Before the Trial Was Even Over)

Will Apple nonetheless try to rally and file new design-related claims against its other competitors? I don’t know, but at the moment, Apple’s U.S. lawsuits against HTC and Motorola deal mainly with software and user interface design, which is arguably a much bigger issue anyway because it speaks to Android as a whole.

Android Is Safe, Says Google, but Is It?

The Apple-Samsung lawsuit didn’t just deal with design and looks. It also covered specific software functions, such as pinch-to-zoom, tap-to-zoom, inertial scrolling and “overscroll bounce,” which causes the screen to decelerate and snap back into place when you’ve scrolled beyond a page’s boundaries.

Apple has already dinged Android on a few other issues, but the resulting changes to the operating system are minor: HTC was forced to change how its phones respond to tapping on certain types of text, such as phone numbers and e-mails, and Samsung had to remove universal search from its Galaxy S III and Galaxy Nexus. The “overscroll bounce” effect is no longer featured in the core version of Android.

If these new infringements spell trouble for Android as a whole, Google isn’t saying so. The company claims that many of the patents at issue relate to Samsung’s modified version of Android, but not the core operating system. In addition, The Verge’s Nilay Patel said he was told that the latest version of Android, known as Jelly Bean, removes any outstanding patent issues.

Of course, many Android phones don’t run Jelly Bean, so Apple could use its win over Samsung as extra ammo against other phone makers. But then, Google notes that the U.S. Patent Office is reexamining several Apple patents, and that the Samsung case is still due for an appeal. Meanwhile, Google has lobbed a fresh lawsuit at Apple, using Motorola patents.

In other words, none of this is getting resolved anytime soon.

Sorry, but the Future Is Unknown

Apple’s win in court has led to lots of sky-is-falling claims from tech pundits and analysts. Andy Ihnatko thinks Android device makers will have to pay a licensing fee to Apple for every phone sold. UBS thinks Samsung could be looking at future royalty payments as part of a settlement. BetaNews claims that choice and innovation will certainly suffer.

As far as I can tell, all of that is pure speculation, based on one verdict against Apple’s closest imitator, which itself is not set in stone. (Here’s a post from Groklaw on the biggest holes in the jury’s decision.) And in any case, there’s plenty of evidence that phone makers have already hedged their bets by designing around Apple’s patents and trade dress.

The only real safe bet right now is that other companies won’t come as close to Apple’s designs as Samsung once did. Whether you agree with the jury’s verdict or not, ask yourself this: Is a market with fewer me-too devices really all that bad?

MORE: Why Appleā€™s Win over Samsung Is Ultimately Good News for Consumers