Of Apple, Samsung, and Obviousness (Updated)

by Steve Wildstrom   |   August 27th, 2012
Calimni's patentent drawing

Calimani’s patent drawings (Galla Coffee)

In 1929, an Italian named Attillo Calimani received a patent for a French press coffee maker. The French press is an extremely simple design: a glass beaker, a metal mesh filter attached to a push rod, and a gasket to form a seal between the filter and the glass. Calimani’s coffeepot looks remarkably like the Bodum press I use every morning. Its design follows its function so elegantly that it doesn’t seem like something that needed inventing. Yet it wasn’t until coffee had been around for hundreds of years that the imagination and manufacturing technology combined to make the French press a practical device.

This, in fact, is a characteristic of the very best in design and invention. Once you see it, it seems inevitable, as though it should always have existed. But that simplicity often takes a a tremendous amount of effort to achieve.

And that is what is wrong with the arguments of Samsung and its supporters that Apple’s iPhone patents were invalid because the key design features were obvious. U.S. patent law imposes a threefold test for patentability: An invention must be novel, useful, and non-obvious. The much-maligned U.S. Patent & Trademark Office found that Apple met that test for various features of the iPhone and the jury, the the extent it could consider the validity of the patents, agreed.

Now it’s true that there is nothing completely new under the sun. According to the history of the French press on the Galla Coffee web site, two French inventors came up with the French press idea nearly a century before Calimani. But their design lacked the gasket around the filter, leaving a lot of coffee grounds behind when the plunger was pushed, In other words, they had the right idea but it it didn’t quite work. Success requires that you both have an idea and find a way to make it practical.

It’s useful to reflect on just what Apple invented with the iPhone that did not exist in 2007. Apple did not invent the multitouch capacitive display, but was the first to use it in a phone. (Microsoft, by contrast released a version of its  Windows Mobile software in late 2009 with no support for multitouch displays.) Apple designers realized that a multitouch screen made both an on-screen keyboard and the elimination of virtually all physical buttons practical. (Large-screen Symbian phones existed before the iPhone, but they lacked multitouch and designers felt compelled to add physical keyboards or at least dialpads.) Despite the handicap of slow network connections–the original iPhone did not offer 3G wireless–Apple realized there was real value in web browsing on a phone and even originally thought that the web was a viable alternative to native apps.

It’s interesting that the most successful competitor to the iPhone is the one that has stuck most closely to the Apple formula, Android. Research in Motion, which thrived for a long time partly because of another obvious, non-obvious invention–a practical miniature keyboard–lost its way by ignoring the Apple assault until too late. Palm offered a real alternative with webOS, but lacked the financial resources to give it a fair chance (I’m not going to go into the Hewlett-Packard fiasco again.) And Microsoft has had a very tough time gaining traction for its distinctive approach, but it’s way to early too count them out.

There are legitimate fears that the decision in Apple v. Samsung will stifle innovation, but I am optimistic that the result will be the opposite: Forced to compete rather than copy, Apple’s competitors will find their way to true competition.

And as for the claim that Apple really didn’t come up with anything strikingly original in the iPhone design, that anyone could have done it, I’ll paraphrase what Aaron Sorkin’s “Mark Zuckerberg” famously said in The Social Network: If you guys were the inventors of the iPhone, you would have invented the iPhone.

UPDATED: At TechCrunch, Leonid Kravets, an actual patent lawyer, weighs in on the issue of obviousness and the Apple-Samsung verdict. The conclusions are similar, but I bet he had less fun writing it.

Steve Wildstrom

Steve Wildstrom is veteran technology reporter, writer, and analyst based in the Washington, D.C. area. He created and wrote BusinessWeek’s Technology & You column for 15 years. Since leaving BusinessWeek in the fall of 2009, he has written his own blog, Wildstrom on Tech and has contributed to corporate blogs, including those of Cisco and AMD and also consults for major technology companies.
  • http://techpinions.com/about-tech-pinions/patrick-moorhead Patrick Moorhead

    I am with you on the three rules, but I challenge the prior art. The icons aligned to a grid and a dock at the bottom remind me of my Windows experience the last decade.

  • capnbob67

    “If you guys were the inventors of the iPhone, you would have invented the iPhone.”

    Great stuff. When you get down to it, there was nothing like it before it came out in terms of capability and usability, and not long after the iPhone there was almost nothing of note that wasn’t like it. Android would still be a WinMob rip off (with nice Google integration) because other companies did not and would not invest the time,money and effort to create something as radically better than the existing devices as the iPhone was.

    The LG Prada is a good example of what low margin businesses can come up with… poor execution with barely usable sub-par software (since LG are not a software company). It was rushed to market to beat the iPhone announcement but even if it hadn’t been, does anyone have any confidence that it would have been meaningfully better? Had the Prada phone existed in a vacuum without the iPhone, it would have been deemed the failure it was and other firms would have written the whole idea off. It probably would have been years before anyone came up with something as good as the first iPhone. It certainly wouldn’t have come from RIM, Nokia, MS or Google who all already had their own success models. To ignore this and claim the iPhone is just obvious is just intellectually dishonest from the Apple haters.

  • pawhite524

    I am so tired of this “Apple has killed” innovation nonsense. It is too “All or Nothing” and, therefore, the lazy person’s way to view the world and not an absolute truth, like gravity. In the physical and biological sciences “the path of least resistance” is a primary but not exclusionary rule. In other words, when water flowing downhill is blocked, the next path of least resistance becomes the way. I know how flexible my body is but when I look at Cirque de Soleil performers I see how flexible the human body can be. There is much undiscovered creativity and innovation to be discovered.

  • Pingback: When designs are so good that are obvious « Blue Label

  • mhikl

    Is the smart phone destined to follow the path of the feature phone and the computer as it hastens its journey to the barrel’s bottom in price? I suspect it is what it is in a free market but Apple seems to defy the odds with its choosing to build high end computers. The same may hold true in the tablet market if the opposition can come up with a serviceable product comparable to the the iPad, i.e., low end profits for some, upscale for others. But what if Apple’s design is now secure and safe from filching by the brain dead who can’t think their way to honest innovation? If Samsung hasn’t learn its lesson from the school of hard knocks and find comparable ways of making an integrated ecosystem for its mobile products, might Apple not win regardless the pricing issue. A Jefferies analyst analyst seems to think so. (http://www.dividend.com/blog/?p=51799) And remember that Apple history shows that it makes heaps off the first generations of new products to cover the investment and then as competition enters the market, Apple shrinks the distance between cost and sale price yet still makes very decent returns on its investments due to its advantage of scale of build and user interest. We see this in computers where Apple rules the high end and seems the only company increasing its overall sales and profits.

    The iPad may be where Apple finds its future in mobile computing if the rabble can’t get their Android together after the recent turn of events in court. Should Apple come out with the iPad mini at a good market price, possibly the only companies with the coin to continue to struggle along in the fully functional and integrated tablet / phone environment will be Samsung and Microsoft but they will be shedding shekels or at least enjoying shaved profits barely covering their costs whilst Apple will be rolling in the high dollars.

    Apple has shown that when it is the leader in market share it can drop prices and hammer the opposition to maintain that share. At some point both Google and Samsung may have to say uncle just as Sony and the other media players were forced to do when iPod sales pierced the stratosphere. However, Samsung has the dollars, the moxie and drive to continue and now it must innovate. The consumer is well served should this its destiny.

    The coffee maker made a good point. Simplicity is important when served by functionality. I myself prefer the coffee sock to all the moving parts of all other options.

  • Rich

    “Forced to compete rather than copy, Apple’s competitors will find their way to true competition.”

    I agree with this. It makes sense.

    • meliorist

      I don’t think it makes sense at all. In fact, I think it is completely silly. Apple’s competitors are producing a very wide range of devices in many styles and form factors, and are obviously competing very successfully with them, since Apple’s smartphone market share is stuck at around 18%. Even that market share would collapse were it not for carrier subsidies in some countries disguising the price of Apple products.

      • FalKirk

        “Even that market share would collapse were it not for carrier subsidies in some countries disguising the price of Apple products.”-meliorist

        Carrier don’t offer subsidies for kicks. They offer Apple big subsidies because they know that the iPhone sells very well and that the iPhone binds customers to their platform.

        • meliorist

          The carriers signed up to those deals a long time ago, as differentiators, before Android had proved its popularity. Now, they don’t need the iPhone as much, so the subsidies are no longer sustainable and are unlikely to last much longer.

          • steve_wildstrom

            Everyone forgets that the iPhone was originally introduced on a new model where AT&T did not subsidize the purchase price but received a cut of the monthly subscription. This did reasonably well in the market, at least after the price was cut from $600 to $400. But the carriers hated it, and Apple was forced to switch back to the traditional subsidy model when it introduced the iPhone 3G (basically, it was unable to get new non-U.S. carriers to sign up on the original AT&T terms.) Even AT&T was happier with the more traditional arrangement, though it arguably was worse off financially. In countries where the subsidy model has taken hold, which is most developed markets, both customers and carriers are addicted to it. I don’t see it changing anytime soon.

          • jfutral

            Not sure where you got this 18% figure, but regardless since the carrier effect is a localized concerned and not global (assuming you may be speaking of a global share and after Samsung’s figures have been shown not to even come close to any of the analysts I have serious doubt about any attempt at global figures, regardless of what platform is doing better than others), and, for instance, the major carriers in the US still show the iPhone being one of the top if not the top performers in sales, as long as customers want the iPhone don’t expect any radical changes except in the plans themselves, which seems to be a moving target regardless of the cell phone in question. Even in markets where the iPhone has no carrier subsidies it still does amazingly well.

            Joe.

  • FalKirk

    Great piece, Steve.

    I used to say that breakthrough products elicited a “wow” from observers. But some anonymous soul on the internet schooled me. Truly breakthrough products don’t elicit a “wow, they elicit an “of course”.

    This is just a basic truth of human nature: Once we know the answer, the question seems easy (and obvious).

    • Dai

      “Truly breakthrough products don’t elicit a “wow, they elicit an “of course”.”

      I like that. I remember reading somewhere, but I can’t remember where (maybe a Dirk Gently book) the exchange:
      “I could have thought of that.”
      “But the fact is you didn’t, and a very significant fact it is too.”

  • cruxer

    Obviously it would be beyond the jury’s purview to determine, but software simply shouldn’t be eligible for patent. Mathematical equations can’t be patented, and even computer scientists can’t agree on where the line that separates a computer program from the underlying math is. The actual code itself is obviously covered by copyright (without all the lawyers/applications even!) I really thought this was settled in Lotus v Borland.

    This case doesn’t matter much in the grand scheme of things, but picture it this way. In 1984, if Xerox had the ability to own software design patents of the sort Apple is asserting here, Steves Jobs and Wozniak could have never introduced the world to the Macintosh.

    • Joe1975

      Apple got a license from Xerox and then improved on Xerox’s ideas so your example dosn’t work.

      • cruxer

        http://www.nytimes.com/1989/12/20/business/xerox-vs-apple-standard-dashboard-is-at-issue.html?src=pm

        In case you don’t have access to NYT archives: Xerox circa 1989 seems to disagree. They sued Apple (albeit under copyright law) after Apple sued M$ claiming ownership of the “computer dashboard” which Xerox invented and believed should be licensed widely (like Xerox-invented ethernet).

        I’ll quote the article to underscore Jobs notion of “licensed” when he stole: “Despite enthusiastic reviews, the [Xerox] Star was never a business success because Xerox could never figure out the personal computer market. The company ultimately withdrew from the market.

        Widely Copied
        But the Star’s interface has been widely copied, most successfully by Apple, in its Macintosh computers. Mr. Jobs had been permitted to visit the Xerox laboratory in return for allowing Xerox to invest in one of Apple’s last private financing offerings. Mr. Jobs later hired computer researchers away from Xerox to help build personal computers with many of the features he first saw at Xerox.”

        • AdamChew

          The Star and its UI and OS was DOA.

          Use but paid for by Apple and then extensively copied by MS.

          Btw if Apple didn’t use the UI developed by Xerox it would remain unknown and died in its lab.

          The world should thanks Apple because now the UI is used by Apple and MS.

  • siingcoder

    The minimalist designs of the ipod, iphones and ipad were obvious and being made by a lot of people before Apple even designed their products.

    You can buy ipod, iphone, and ipad look-a-like devices in Hong Kong, Korea and Japan before iphones even existed.

    Apple is the thief that patented the design that other people made.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yOzcruZu4jw