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The Sincerest Form of Flattery - Consolidation & the Touchscreen

The bigger issue is question two. It is indisputable that products across all sectors are becoming more and more indistinguishable and this is largely being fuelled by the rise of the touchscreen. In simple terms touchscreens allow other physical parts to be stripped away. Your hands become the mouse, touchpad and keyboard. The problem is it also strips away individuality and results in a common form factor: namely ever slimmer slabs that are 90 per cent screen.

Consequently phones, tablets and eventually all-in-one PCs are headed for a minimalist clone-like existence where similarity is inevitable and the smallest detail can result in oversensitive companies embarking on ferocious lawsuits. Apple's lawsuit against Samsung is a perfect example. It is furious about the corner curves on the Galaxy range! With convergence centred around the phone and compact cameras, video recorders and games consoles next in line to be swallowed by handsets the obsession with guarding every millimetre of popular designs is only going to get more heated.

It is a similar situation with software. Right now mobile software is being governed by something we all share: fingers, and what is deemed to be most finger friendly right now are grid designs. That will inevitably change as designs evolve, but today to be competitive and to appeal to what mainstream customers 'know' it means wasting no time, launching competitive products and dealing with the consequences down the line. Court hearings take years and if every product had to be cleared through the courts first we'd still be making calls by generating sparks. As accountants tally their figures the penalties for breaking patents are insignificant compared to not being in the running in the first place.

The flip side to all this is the death of real innovation. When the stakes are so high you don't take creative risks, you just follow the competition. Today's Android smartphones are all small variations of one another and Windows Phone handsets are even more identical. Even RIM and Nokia are (unsuccessfully) trying to shake off their iconic button designs and join the slabs with the likes of the Storm and C5.

As a result some of the most compelling products we see are prototypes that companies simply don't have the gumption to bring to market. Therefore the products that do dare to be different tend to come from companies with nothing to lose and little drive to see it through properly. Take the dual screen Kyocera Echo smartphone or Microsoft's wonderful looking Courier tablet. Kyocera's effort has been widely panned and should scare companies off trying to repeat the formula for some time. Likewise Microsoft's lack of presence in the tablet sector saw it try something radical, before canning it and falling into line with dull Windows 7 based slabs like the LG H1000B. It will be 2012 before Microsoft unveils a dedicated Windows tablet OS and who doubts it will look just like a port of Windows Phone?

Much is made of the speed at which the tech sector evolves. With a constant stream of opportunistic lawsuits and unrelenting convergence the worry is for how much longer?


April 20, 2011, 5:22 pm

I can kind of see Apple's point on one hand. But on the other, this is just a massive waste of time and resource.

As said above, the patent system needs to be refreshed and cleaned out. If Apple truly have some patents for innovative ideas and technology, then it should be easy and quick for them to A: get the patent and B: protect the patent. The same goes for all other companies. The whole patenting vague 'ideas' is ridiculous though.

On another note, there's loads of errors in the article relating to your hot-links. Seems like someone should have more thoroughly checked these before they went live.


April 20, 2011, 5:30 pm

I do agree that touchscreens are limiting the variety of handsets. A 4 inch screen will dominate any pocket-sized device, to the point that handsets all end up sharing almost identical form factors.

However, I don't think Apple's latest accusations against Samsung are a product of this. Apple are specifically targeting the 'look and feel' of Samsung's handsets, not the broader aspects of the design. The silver trim around the Galaxy S, the rounded corners of the device, the large central home button, the square icons, the 4 icon dock. It's easy to discount Apple's attack on these details as trivial, but all of these aesthetic cues combine to form Apple's brand identity. Apple are ferociously protective of their brand identity, it's possibly their most valuable asset.

To make a car analogy (I know, it's tired), consider the double-kidney grille that features on the nose of every BMW. You could remove every BMW badge from the car, but as long as that grille is present any observer could identify that car as a BMW at a glance. That recognition is crucial to the value of the brand. If another manufacturer were to feature that grille in their design, BMW would be rightly miffed.


April 20, 2011, 5:59 pm

I agree with EvilPaul - "These kinds of lawsuits are more about trading patent licenses or doing deals, and less about protecting Intellectual Property." And I have no idea what the real back story to this news is.

Whilst I understand and respect the whole point of the patent system, to protect / benefit the individual or group of people who had the skill to invent, it is true to say that the system now needs a massive overhaul, especially in the tech industry. There are probably now more patent trolls buying up patents solely to suppress technology than there are to benefit from its development. Although, I suspect that this has long been the case, just take the oil industry for example.

I think that there should be a use it or lose it approach to granted IP patents and they should have a much shorter shelf-life (5 years for the tech industry?) and much stricter criteria for granting patents in the first place. When, by requirement of design and function, a certain design become so ubiquitous and universally accepted by the public as being the bench mark, patents should not be allowed to get in the way of further development and progress after a time limit has passed. (TV design or Touch screen hardware is a good example as Gordon made).

By this stage the initial inventors (or the company they work for) should have had plenty of time to become very rich exploiting their captive market, and start developing a new product.

I know there are a million other points in this debate - but I think one thing most people will agree on, it can't carry on like it is now, can it?


April 20, 2011, 10:37 pm

Talking of fear, try this:

"iPhone keeps record of everywhere you go

"Privacy fears raised as researchers reveal file on iPhone that stores location coordinates and timestamps of owner's movements"

@ http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2011/apr/20/iphone-tracking-prompts-privacy-fears


April 21, 2011, 5:59 am

You're spot on. Patent and pedantic can't be interchangeable.

Regarding links, they are all actually correct. Unfortunately the new site still has to port of lot of content over. Once this is correct the links will become live. It's equally frustrating for me.


April 21, 2011, 6:01 am

Agreed, but I think that the design of a car has far more scope for unique design elements than a 3.5/4in touchscreen slab. Patenting angles or finishes is hugely problematic.


April 21, 2011, 6:09 am

@Enigma saw this, but the interesting aspect since we agreed to it. The epic T&Cs we all skip and sign up to give Apple full scope to do this. So is it Apple's fault for exploiting what we inevitably fail to read or ours for not reading the T&Cs fully and potentially daring to click 'no'?

As ever, probably a bit of both...


April 21, 2011, 6:10 am

@all hopefully you'll find the new page positioning better for features? I certainly prefer it to the previous position just above podcasts.


April 21, 2011, 6:25 pm

Very true, but I'm not referring to any one design detail here, but rather all of these details in combination. I chose the car analogy *because* it's an obvious one. IMHO Samsung have incorporated more Apple-esque visual cues in their designs than any other manufacturer. I've seen it alluded to in a number of Galaxy S reviews, and possibly even TR's own review. If the site's search function were able to find it I might have been able to verify that...


April 21, 2011, 6:27 pm

Much better, thanks. I hope you did that based on more than just my suggestion. I'm no web designer!


April 21, 2011, 6:33 pm

Oh, sorry forgot to mention. It's important to make the distinction between design patents intended to protect brand identity and other types of patents that might exist to protect technological innovations. Design patents are all about patenting angles and finishes.


BTW, Apple just received 18 patents, including the iPhone 4 design patent. Conincidence?



April 21, 2011, 9:43 pm

You only have to take a glance at the Samsung TV recently reviewed on here to know that this company has a design team that's capable of some stunning creations of their own. Why they feel that they have to copy the conservative and superficial designs of a rival I don't understand. Than again Samsung has a hard time understanding itself.


April 24, 2011, 12:23 am

I love the the microsoft courier. Such a shame they canned it.

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