Analysis: Apple v. Samsung suit sidesteps Google

Not for the first time, Apple has lashed out against one of its competitors in the mobile arena, accusing it of infringing upon the company’s intellectual property. This time, the target of Apple’s legal affections is Samsung—specficially its line of Android-based Galaxy smartphones and the Galaxy Tab tablet.

And the company’s not mincing words, either. In the complaint against Samsung, Apple’s lawyers write:

Instead of pursuing independent product development, Samsung has chosen to slavishly copy Apple’s innovative technology, distinctive user interfaces, and elegant and distinctive product and packaging design, in violation of Apple’s valuable intellectual property rights.

The evidence appears to be fairly damning, involving 10 Apple patents, seven trademarks, and a handful of trade dress registrations.

Samsung’s not the first Android phone maker that Apple has sued, either; it’s previously filed complaints against both HTC and Motorola. And yet, the lawsuit cleverly sidesteps any attack at the source of the Android platform—Google—with whom Apple has enjoyed an alternately hot and cold relationship over the past few years.

Copycat killer

In contrast to its ongoing lawsuit against HTC, which deals with patents relating to user interface, underlying architecture, and hardware, Apple’s action against Samsung seems to focus more on the look and feel of the products: Everything from device form factors to icons to the packaging is deemed to be infringing upon Apple’s iconic iPhones, iPod touches, and iPads.

Apple’s never been shy about talking up its intellectual property; after introducing the iPhone at Macworld Expo 2007, Apple CEO Steve Jobs followed up his description of the device’s multitouch interface by saying: “and boy, have we patented it.” And during Apple’s financial results conference call for the first quarter of 2009, COO Tim Cook said the company liked competition, but wouldn’t stand to have its intellectual property “ripped off” and would use “whatever weapons we have at our disposal,” quotes that at the time seemed aimed at the then-unreleased Palm Pre.

The question is: Why Samsung? Android and other touchscreen-based operating systems like HP’s webOS have been around for a few years. The major reason, at least based on my reading of the complaint, is apparently that Apple believes this is a solid case, because Samsung’s products—which incorporate its own user interface called TouchWiz—are so close to Apple’s own that Cupertino alleges they’re deliberately intended to be confused. (For more, tech writer and former copyright attorney Nilay Patel has an excellent detailed breakdown of the whole suit.)

Samsung, for its part, isn’t about to take the suit lying down—the South Korea-based company has said it intends to “respond strongly” against the action. There’s an added wrinkle to this particular case, too: Apple is a heavy buyer of Samsung’s LCD display panels and semiconductors (read: NAND flash memory) that go into making things like—you guessed it—the iPad and the iPhone. Is this suit merely the next step in a negotiation gone sour? Or, as Apple pundit Matt Drance suggests, “the latest move in an escalating game of chicken.”

Google who?

But there’s a larger issue at stake here, and that’s the elephant in the room: Google. Having targeted HTC, Motorola, and now Samsung, Apple has taken shots at three of the largest manufacturers of Android phones—and yet not at the source of the platform itself. In some ways, Apple’s legal action against its smartphone rivals seems as fragmented as the Android platform it’s aiming at.

Android remains Apple’s biggest rival in the mobile space, in terms of mindshare if nothing else. It’s hard not to see these suits against Mountain View’s allies as an attempt by Apple to pull the rug out from under Google, all the while maintaining the appearance of a cordial relationship with the Android developer itself.

To those who incessantly compare the iOS vs. Android battle as a rehash of Apple’s conflict with Microsoft, it’s tempting to see this as an example of Cupertino learning from its mistakes. In 1994, at the height of the PC platform war, the company attempted to take Microsoft head-on with a “look-and-feel” copyright suit—and ultimately lost. From a legal perspective, as Patel points out in the story linked above, the basis of the Samsung suit is very different from the action against Microsoft.

But from a strategic point of view, perhaps Apple has decided that it has less to gain from cutting off the head of the beast than from lopping off its limbs one-by-one. Apple may not believe that a case against Google would be as strong as those against the device manufacturers—or it might just be waiting for the right opportunity to take aim at the source of its competition.

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