By Chad O’Carroll
After last week’s news that Apple had successfully won an injunction to block the sale of Samsung’s Galaxy Tab computers in the United States comes another major legal development also in Apple’s favor. As of close of business on Tuesday, Galaxy case judge Judy Koh effectively banned sales of the Samsung Galaxy Nexus cell phone in the U.S. market through an injunction that cited “probable” infringement of four Apple patent claims. With Apple having posted a bond of $96 million to cover any profit that Samsung would lose in the event the ruling is later overturned, the injunction has now come to life and Galaxy Nexus sales are now effectively banned in the U.S. This is a worrisome development for Samsung in its continuing legal battle with Apple which may also hinder the evolution of the Android and even iPhone mobile operating systems.
The Galaxy Nexus was developed by Samsung in partnership with Google, forming the third generation of the two firms ever-evolving Nexus smartphone series. During the design phase of the latest offering, Samsung and Google collaborated in creating a new search feature known as the “Quick Search Box”. Using the “Quick Search Box”, Galaxy Nexus users receive search suggestions before typing is completed and answers to queries based on an aggregation of data from the web, installed apps, and from contact information. According to Apple, the “Quick Search Box” is too much like Apple’s own Siri search tool and Judge Koh’s decision appears to confirm their claim that it may represent a patent infringement. Even some third-party reviews of the Galaxy Nexus (cited in the actual case) appear to validate Apple’s claim that “Quick Search Box” could reduce iPhone sales, with one review saying it adds a “whole new layer of functionality” that would help Android phones “win new customers, even ones with iPhones.”
While Google has already removed the Galaxy Nexus smartphone from its “Play” store, the wording it uses to explain the move, “Coming Soon”, suggests that it has plans to get the phone back onto the market as soon as possible. Already reports are emerging that it is working on a software patch for the Nexus that will undermine Apple’s patent infringement claim and allow for a resumption of sales, although this will seemingly result in some decrease in functionality in the Samsung phone: “Once the patch is rolled out, devices that are updated will see the home screen-based quick search option simplified so as to only show results from the Web, with local search options disabled entirely on the device. The voice search option will also be restricted to retrieving results from the Web”. So while Samsung and Google may be able to get around this ruling, the solution will be to the detriment of the design and functionality of the Android operating system.
As I have outlined before in two other Peninsula articles, it seems Apple is really trying to prevent Samsung – its biggest competitor – from selling phones in cases that seek to prove patent ownership of extremely general concepts. The idea that an aggregated search facility can only be the sole purvey of Apple iPhone is difficult to comprehend , inferring that it was Apple who invented the actual concept of information aggregation. And a look at the three other patent infringement claims that form the basis of Apple’s Nexus Galaxy litigation underscore their general concept approach. These claims argue that the Galaxy Nexus cannot have a slide to unlock the phone, cannot have auto-fill search, and cannot have data underlined and made actionable (i.e .the ability to click a number in a text to call it). As one programmer put it, “Apple seems to own every graphical user interface ever invented”, adding that if features like these can be patented, “it should be possible to patent the idea of [having] text or images in web pages.”
As Apple continues putting legal pressure on Samsung, it is important to remember that the iPhone itself has benefited from bringing together many technologies that were preexisting. Many researchers and companies invented technologies that predate the iPhone and one of the reasons the iPhone was originally so successful was because it drew together these extremely innovative technologies in one place. But that shouldn’t mean other manufacturers cannot also build touch screen smartphones that have user friendly interfaces. Indeed, that Android smartphones have similar functionality to iPhone should come as no surprise because both devices have the same purpose – to facilitate mobile communication.
Take a look at software products in other areas and you will also find many similarities. Internet Explorer, Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox all have striking similarities. But imagine if the inventor of the “bookmark” wanted to sue them all as a result of patent infringement? In short, when programmers write software, it is natural for similarities to exist. And while Android may have been inspired by some iPhone functionality, Google have often refined that functionality to the point it has even copied back by Apple and ported to newer iterations of the iPhone.
Up to now, Apple has spearheaded the main body of patent litigation in the smartphone market and this has encouraged Google and Samsung to do the same, motivating them to patent every innovation they come up with. The result is that if the legal fracas between the companies continues, we may arrive at a situation where Apple could be boxed into a position where it cannot add a lot of the newer and yet to be released Google innovations that one might have previously considered as “general” features. Already this is happening, with Apple’s iPhone lacking Google Map 3D navigation or voice translation capabilities. And if Apple keeps winning cases like this one, Android customers will also eventually be locked out of basic functionality that makes owning a touch screen phone practical to use.
Chad 0’Carroll is the Director of Communications for the Korea Economic Institute. The views represented here are his own.