Apple legal

I’m not a lawyer, and I do not profess to be. My understanding of the law is not profound, but what I lack in legal knowledge, I like to think I make up for in common sense. What I am about to say will elate some, infuriate others, and hopefully leave a few readers thinking, “Well, of course.”

Simply put, Apple has gone too far.

That’s not an original thought. Many people have said it before me, and many will say it after. I say this not out of a desire to spark a flame war between fanboys, but to call to light what I hope is already glaringly obvious.

When the iPad was called magical, it was denounced as hyperbole. When the optical drive was taken out of the Mac Mini, it was called idiocy. These particular cases have been debated ad naseum, and whether you are for or against Apple, you have to admit that on a grander scale they lack importance. They are just mundane conversations about Apple being Apple. Aside from sparking gentle debate, the results are innocuous.

The result of Apple’s action this time has been much more pernicious. This time, the casualty has been common sense, and the result is a huge advantage for a company that already has a stranglehold on the tablet industry. What am I talking about? With Apple currently embroiled in several controversies, I could be directing my ire at any number of things. But today, I don’t want to discuss software patents, unsolicited data collection or foreign working conditions. I want to discuss trade dress.

To those of you who are unaware of what trade dress is, it is the specific look and feel of a product; the careful, deliberate design and marketing of a device. That is my convoluted way of saying that companies work hard to establish the specific look of their products. If another manufacturer copies this look, they can be sued. This is exactly what is happening between Apple and Samsung. Right now, at this very moment, an injunction bans the sale of the Galaxy Tab 10.1 in Germany. At first, the injunction banned the sale of the device in all of Europe, save the Netherlands, but was partly suspended on August 16th. Now, a battle is being waged to fully strike it down. Samsung, fearing further legal and financial repercussions, has delayed the launch of the tablet in Australia.

Cupertino’s argument is simple: that the Galaxy Tab 10.1 looks too much like the iPad 2. In Apple’s eyes, Samsung is intentionally trying to deceive customers into thinking they are purchasing iPad 2s; that they are encroaching on a design that Apple has spent so much time associating with its brand.

The first question to ask is if Apple’s case has merit. Would the average consumer be fooled into thinking that the Galaxy Tab 10.1 is an iPad 2? They do share some similarities: a slate form factor, a minimalist approach and similar build materials. Yet, there are also some striking differences. The camera placement is different, as are the designs of the backs and the colors. Even if you had the devices turned off and only facing the front, you would still notice a glaring difference: the iPad has an aspect ratio of 4:3, while the Galaxy is a much more rectangular 16:10. Side by side, the differences are such that no discerning consumer could confuse the two. However, in fairness to Apple, I doubt these two products will be seen sharing any display cases, and less than fickle consumers could certainly make the mistake of confusing the two.

Regardless of whether or not you think consumers will be befuddled by the Samsung design, I think that a larger argument should be taking place: is the concept of trade dress applicable when the design has so much to do with the functionality? I would argue that trade dress isn’t just trade dress when the line between aesthetic and functional has been breached.

iMac G3What are the key physical features of a tablet that make it so attractive? I would argue that there are at least two very important ones: Portability, made possible by a slim design, and simplicity. Apple has a penchant for minimalism and is notorious for it’s design prowess. It would be one thing if Samsung was cloning the iMac G3. This iMac had flair, a design originality that was distinctly Apple, yet it had little to do with functionality. The tablet case is different, where minimalism and portability are integral to the experience. Why would’t Samsung make its tablet as slim or as simple as possible? I’ve said before that tablets are windows to the world of media. I think that it’s an apt metaphor in this argument as well. Could you imagine one window manufacturer saying that their competitor’s windows were too thin, or that they were identical in shape to theirs? The iPad is a superb product, one that defined a category and continues to be a sales blockbuster, but nothing about its design is groundbreaking. In fact, what makes it such a beautiful product is it’s simplicity.

I have no problem with the iPad, but I do have a very big problem with how Apple is approaching the subject of competition in the tabletsphere. Apple has a veritable monopoly on the tablet market, and by pursuing these lawsuits, it sends a very discouraging message that intimates a lack of confidence. What is most unnerving of all were the revelations that the photos comparing the two tablets submitted to the court may have been modified. Modified, in the sense that the Galaxy Tab 10.1 was made to appear identical in aspect ratio and size to the iPad 2. If the allegations are true, then the sincerity of the lawsuit should be held even more dubiously. It would be one thing to believe that Apple considered the Galaxy Tab 10.1 too similar for comfort, but these pictures lead us to doubt that Apple itself was convinced of the infringement.

I sincerely hope that Samsung is able to sell the Galaxy Tab 10.1 freely and without injunction, and that restrictions are put in place to prevent a similar case from reappearing. I hope for this outcome not based on personal bias. I do not dislike Apple, nor do I dislike Samsung, Google or any other company for that matter. I love innovation, I love the pursuit of perfection and I love competition. These are three things that go hand in hand, and when when one company is given a head start in a race that they are already winning, it destroys the very essence of what makes technology so much fun and such a joy to cover.

Addendum September 4th: Apple has now been granted an injunction against Samsung, banning the sale of the Galaxy Tab 7.7 in Germany.