Why It Matters That Samsung Copied Apple [Opinion]

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Samsung copied Apple. There really isn’t another way to put it. Samsung didn’t copy Apple in every conceivable way, but when you compare several of their phones to the iPhone, it’s clear that Samsung wanted their hardware and software to resemble that of Apple’s iPhone.

It’s easy for Android supporters to want to defend Samsung, but the evidence is overwhelmingly in favor of Apple’s argument: Samsung realized that it needed to copy Apple to get ahead in the smartphone space. In terms of what this means for the lawsuit seems trivial, but there are deeper issues at stake. How did Samsung copying Apple damage the Android ecosystem as a whole and why should you care?

Since the release of the original Galaxy S back in 2010, Samsung began a steady climb to become the dominant Android manufacturer in terms of both tablets and smartphones. Prior to the Galaxy S, Samsung had touted phones like the original Galaxy (running Android 1.6) and before then the Omnia line of phones running Windows Mobile. Like HTC, Samsung began developing their custom skin, TouchWiz, on Windows Mobile before hitting their stride by skinning Android.

It is important to remember that in the early days of Android, there were not a lot of differences between Android and Windows Mobile. Both operating systems were designed to compete with Blackberry OS, Palm OS, and Symbian, not iOS. Towards the end of Windows Mobile’s life, companies like Samsung and HTC made Windows Mobile usable with TouchFlo UI (later renamed Sense) and TouchWiz. Because Android was not designed to compete with a touch-only operating system, Android manufacturers used skins to make Android more competitive. For example, while the original Droid could not originally pinch-to-zoom, the Droid Eris and Droid Incredible were able to because of Sense (at least in the browser; Google apps like Maps weren’t able to use pinch-to-zoom until Google updated them).

In the midst of Apple’s market disruptions, customers were looking for a more modern smartphone than Microsoft or Blackberry had to offer. They turned to manufacturers like HTC and Samsung to provide a skinned Android experience more like the experience afforded by the iPhone. Manufacturers correctly assessed that Android’s early incarnations were not as polished as they should have been to compete with iOS, so they skinned them to improve the experience. HTC had partnered with Google to make the first flagship Android phones (the G1, the Magic, and the Nexus One), making it the most prominent Android manufacturer in the early days of Android.

Other manufacturers wanted to get ahead. As OEMs realized that Android was the way to go (especially since Microsoft’s upcoming OS would not allow the manufacturer customizations that OEMs had pured millions of dollars into developing), they began to push more of their efforts into customizing Android. Samsung was able to jump ahead of everyone with the release of the Galaxy S, the successor to the less-than-impressive Galaxy.

The Galaxy S had a lot of things going for it. It featured a 1 GHz processor, a Super AMOLED display, a 5 MP camera, and perhaps most importantly, was available on all four major carriers in the US by September of 2010. At the time, the iPhone was still only available on AT&T in the United States. Following the release of the Galaxy S, Samsung began their steady climb to become the only profitable Android manufacturer in the world.

The question is, what did Samsung do that HTC, Motorola, and others didn’t? The answer is simple: Samsung copied Apple while manufacturers like Motorla and HTC differentiated their software. The evidence has always been clear. A quick comparison between the Galaxy S and the iPhone 3G/3GS reveal many similarities between the design of the bezel to the color and look of many TouchWiz icons. To make matters worse, the trial between Samsung and Apple has revealed several internal Samsung documents that specifically state that Samsung was trying to copy Apple.

As supporters of Android, we shouldn’t care if one manufacturer fairs better than another; after all, competition spurs innovation. We should care, however, if a manufacturer steals ideas from a competitor to get ahead of everyone else instead of innovating on their own. If you look at Samsung’s Omnia line and first Galaxy device, it’s clear that Samsung was further behind in the game than Motorola or HTC.

Look at Motorola and HTC devices in the era of the iPhone 3G onward. There is a clear design aesthetic that Motorola and HTC have been pursuing. When you see a Motorola or a Samsung phone today, the design is iconic of each company. While Motorola and HTC may have taken some inspiration from Apple initially (especially HTC), both companies differentiated their software and eventually came into their own hardware design language. Motorola phones usually feature striking edges, tough materials, and blocky software design while HTC phones have curved edges and polished, flashy software. There is a clear path of design aesthetic from the Droid to the RAZR. The same can be said of HTC’s designs from the Nexus One onward (the G1 and the Magic still looked like Windows Mobile devices in my opinion). Samsung’s devices, on the other hand, take a dramatic shift from the Galaxy S onward in terms of software and hardware mimicking the iPhone.

Maybe Samsung got ahead because consumers saw their phones as close enough to an iPhone. Maybe Samsung got ahead because they stole hardware design and software ideas from Apple so they didn’t have to put in as much time and effort as other OEMs did in developing their own ideas. Regardless of the specific reason, it is clear that Samsung not only stole ideas from Apple to get ahead, but that it worked. More importantly, because it worked, the Android ecosystem as a whole has suffered and manufacturers that would have probably thrived through their own innovations are instead losing money every quarter. I have no doubt that companies like Motorola and HTC would be doing much better had Samsung decided to compete by actually innovating instead of lazily stealing ideas from Apple to get ahead. Apple surprised the world with the iPhone. Everyone knew that it would take time for the competition to catch up and then really compete, but Samsung took the lazy route and copied Apple instead of innovating.

Obviously Samsung didn’t copy everything from Apple, but their own documents make it clear that their intent was to copy enough from Apple to get ahead. This sort of problem can’t be solved in the courts. Samsung has built up a brand and a reputation that, based on Galaxy S III sales, will be difficult to tarnish. The reality is, most people won’t care that Samsung copied Apple, but they should. Real innovators like HTC and Motorola would undoubtedly be doing better in the market, and therefore have more resources to keep innovating. Google can’t buy all the OEMs that fail, and even if they could, that wouldn’t right Samsung’s wrong. The Android ecosystem has been forever damaged by Samsung’s callous laziness. Samsung’s brazen copying of the iPhone didn’t hurt Apple nearly as much as it hurt other Android OEMs. Hopefully OEMs like Motorola and HTC are able to out-innovate the competition even more to ensure their success in the market.



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