August 1, 2012 at 10:27 am

Hey Samsung: So What If Apple Was ‘Inspired’ by Sony?

Apple's iPhone was slightly inspired by Sony, the same way its iPod was slightly inspired by previous devices (image from Apple's iPod patent).

Everybody’s talking about the big lawsuit between Apple and Samsung, which is about Apple claiming that Samsung stole patented designs for the iPhone and iPad to create its smartphones and tablets. In the latest twist, Samsung released alleged evidence that Apple is in no position to accuse Samsung of stealing because it stole the iPhone design from Sony.

John Gruber makes a great point over at Daring Fireball: that Apple did not steal an actual design from Sony, but rather was “inspired” by a broad text description from a Sony designer, which mentioned things like rounded corners, a lack of buttons and ornamentation, and an ability to fit into the human hand (great idea!). The record shows that Apple bigwigs, including Steve Jobs, saw the description of Sony’s vision, then directed an Apple designer to create a “Sony-like” design that eventually became the iPhone.

The presiding judge in Apple v. Samsung, Lucy Koh, barred the plaintiff from making the argument in court that Apple stole from Sony, so Samsung is now making it in the court of public opinion. The thing is, Apple has always been “inspired” by other companies — some would argue, perfecting their ideas.

Take the original iPod’s scrollwheel — the crucial design element that enabled music fans to scroll through large music libraries on the go without tediously pressing buttons thousands of times in a row or holding one down to zoom too fast through the list, the way every other high-capacity MP3 player made you do back then. Apple received a lot of credit for this, but it didn’t invent the scroll wheel, or even design the one in the iPod.

The former point was brought to my attention by a Slashdot comment responding to my 2004 article, “The Secret Behind Apple’s Scroll wheel,” about how a company called Synaptics actually designed Apple’s scroll wheel. The comment pointed out that Bang & Olufsen had a scroll wheel in its BeoCom telephones “several years before Apple.” And this wasn’t even Bang & Olufsen’s idea, really, either. As my former colleague Leander Kahney points out in his book Inside Steve Jobs’ Brain, the Hewlett-Packard 9836 workstation had a “similar wheel for scrolling text” way back in 1983. So the iPod’s scroll wheel — one of the chief reasons for its success — was neither conceived nor designed by Apple.

Nothing exists in a vacuum, and most great ideas have antecedents. By bringing up the fact that Apple was inspired by some words from a Sony designer, Samsung may have inadvertently undermined its case. There’s a big difference between inspiration (what Apple borrowed from Sony) and theft (what Apple claims Samsung did with its Android hardware). Not only that, but Judge Koh is reportedly “livid” and “enraged” that Samsung went to the press with these internal Apple communications, which is not likely to help its cause.

Why are we writing about this on a publication about music apps? Without the iPhone, there would be no apps, or, more likely, else they would have taken much longer to emerge. Remember what cellphones were like before the iPhone? Just because Apple was inspired by outside ideas doesn’t mean it didn’t build anything new.

However, it’s hard to see how Android hardware, of which Samsung is the most successful producer; Google’s Android operating system; and the Android app ecosystem weren’t directly spawned by Apple’s iPhone, even if that invention was inspired by Sony’s words and built on the success of the iPod, which in turn borrowed from previous devices.

Borrowing and inspiration are nothing new — and neither are Android smartphones and tablets, according to the late Steve Jobs. We don’t know how this is going to play out yet, of course, but it’s looking like Samsung doesn’t have much of a defense. If it loses, music fans and other consumers could find their smartphone and tablet choices diminished or made more expensive, even if Samsung finds a way to “design around” Apple’s patents. If Samsung (and other Android manufacturers) can’t sell thin, rectangular tablets with rounded edges, or smartphones that scroll through content, the world will be a different place.

  • Rod Caicedo

    The basic situation is: who patented any idea before the original creator…

  • Joe