With apologies to Nokia, LG, Google and all of the other reputable players on the smartphone market, Apple vs. Samsung is the defining rivalry of the current mobile generation. But the battle of Apple vs. Samsung taking place in mall kiosks and online retailers around the world is also Apple Inc. v. Samsung Electronics Co., one of the biggest and most vicious intellectual property wars in all of 21st century business. Whether you’re a die-hard iPhone truther or a dyed-in-the-wool Galaxy aficionado, we’re confident you’ll enjoy this tour through the history of their head-to-head clash.
Apple’s first-generation iPhone dropped on June 29, 2007 into a marketplace that was thoroughly unprepared for its revolutionary advances. It’s easy to forget how much of what we take for granted as S.O.P. in terms of smartphone functionality was pioneered by the original iPhone. It had less to do with technology than with its approach to design. As The Conversation notes in their 10th anniversary retrospective, there were already more powerful phones on the market, and other devices (like Apple’s own iPod) had introduced the public to versatile multi-touch screens.
In reality, the big change that would allow the iPhone to dominate until the Apple vs. Samsung battle began in earnest was the fact that it was not simply a phone with some extra functionality, but a handheld computer that happened to be able to make phone calls. Before the iPhone, the term “app” had barely entered the public lexicon. After it, even our watches and eyeglasses would have them built-in.
Over the next few years, Apple would improve on the slightly limited functionality of the original iPhone (no copy-paste! puny battery life!), defining the terms of how we interact with our devices to the point it is hard to think of them working any other way. Which is why Samsung decided to change the nature of the battle.
Samsung on the Shoulders of Giants
This is not a story about moral high ground. Despite his visionary genius, the late Apple founder Steve Jobs was often a deeply unpleasant person. His company has often evinced a similar arrogance. Look at its attitude toward adopting new technologies it didn’t perfect in-house, and the row over its clandestine strategy of throttling older products “for the customers own good” without doing them the courtesy of telling them.
Meanwhile, Samsung has relied on a long history of cut-throat business tactics to fight its way from an electronics also-ran to one of the globe’s preeminent technology giants. Those tactics have even resulted in prison time for some of its senior executives. Kurt Eichenwald’s full-throated 2014 Vanity Fair feature on the Apple vs. Samsung war has as much (figurative) blood and guts as a quality summer blockbuster, and is worth reading in its entirety. Here’s a sample of Apple’s reaction to getting their hands on Samsung’s breakthrough Galaxy S:
The designers studied it with growing disbelief. The Galaxy S, they thought, was pure piracy. The overall appearance of the phone, the screen, the icons, even the box looked the same as the iPhone’s. Patented features such as “rubber-banding,” in which a screen image bounces slightly when a user tries to scroll past the bottom, were identical. Same with “pinch to zoom,” which allows users to manipulate image size by pinching the thumb and forefinger together on the screen. And on and on.
This would be the flashpoint of a legal dog-fight inaugurated by Apple that has finally ended only this year. While Samsung has paid out hundreds of millions in damages as a result of its violations of Apple’s intellectual property, it’s also used a barrage of countersuits to slow down the progress of the case. In the meantime, it’s continued to claw away a larger and larger market share. In 2017’s edition of the head-to-head Apple vs. Samsung battle, Samsung again led the way with 21.9% of the market to Apple’s 15.2%.
By standing on the shoulders of Apple’s engineers back in 2011, Samsung were able to give their own designers a running start. Samsung’s high-end products routinely match the performance of Apple’s at a lower price point, while the company also offers a wider range of devices for different budgets. In the end, Apple may won the battle in the courtroom but potentially still lost the war.
Of course, just as Apple’s technology begat Samsung’s own innovations, so might Samsung’s business tactics give rise to its own downfall. The four biggest Chinese manufacturers (Huawei, Oppo, Vivo and Xiaomi), who often have a similarly blasé outlook on IP niceties, combined for a 32% market share. And their handsets are getting better all the time…