Who invented the iPhone?

So Apple won a sizeable victory against Samsung in the big patent trial of the year/decade/century. Fair play for originality, I think, but still no vindication for the barmy patent system. But as I put it in this recent Irish Times column, “if Samsung could have invented the iPhone, Samsung would have invented the iPhone”.


From The Irish Times, Monday, August 13th, 2012

There’s a famous line in The Social Network, where the heavily fictionalised Mark Zuckerberg, exasperated at the effrontery of the privileged, preppie twins who were suing him for stealing their idea for an online social network, lets rip.

“If you were the guys who invented Facebook, you would have invented Facebook,” he snaps, his disdain at their sense of entitlement all too clear. Wherever the idea of a social network came from, Zuckerberg went and invented the all-consuming Facebook, while the Winklevoss twins most certainly didn’t.

I have no clue if Zuckerberg actually ever said that line or if it was invented for him by screenwriter Aaron Sorkin – it sure has the neatly concise, jousting precision of a Sorkinism about it – but it says a lot about the importance of achieving rather than just imagining innovation. We all know that tedious bromide about the relative importance of inspiration and perspiration, but the cutting logic of this line hints at more than just the effort and ability required to execute good ideas – Zuckerberg had both, the Winklevii neither – in that it also dismisses the arrogance of those who would take credit for things they didn’t, in fact, achieve.

I was reminded of it a few times over the past two weeks as another lawsuit about innovation captures the tech world’s attention. Apple and Samsung are going toe to toe in a Californian courtroom after the Cupertino tech giant sued its Korean rival for “slavishly copying” its iPhone and iPad.

There’s been juicy details about the internal design processes at both companies leaking out every day, with members of Apple’s design team showing off an array of phone and tablet prototypes and testifying to the obsessive attention to detail that marks out the 20-strong team that works under design chief Jony Ive. In the process, we are being treated to the best insight we’ll probably ever get into the years of painstaking work that went into the development of the iPhone, the gradual iteration of ideas, the breakthroughs and compromises and ingenuity. Given how disruptive and transformative the iPhone has proven to be, this peek at its genesis is of significant historical importance.

There was always been a hint of Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory about Apple under Steve Jobs, and the cloak of mystery that surrounds the company has been virtually impregnable for years. That the company is voluntarily lifting that cloak shows how determined it is to protect its intellectual property.

Among the most telling pieces of evidence submitted by Apple, however, was a timeline of Samsung’s phones in the years before and after the iPhone was unveiled in 2007 – devices in every permutation of shape, size and features to, well, simple slabs of glass with a grid of icons that are obviously reminiscent of Apple’s smartphone. Other evidence included an internal Samsung memo that described the “crisis of design” the company experienced after the release of the iPhone, and a lengthy document detailing how designers were urged to make the original Galaxy S more iPhone-like in virtually every detail.

However, the jury will probably not be presented with what I consider the most damning piece of evidence – a few years ago, about 2005, I got a Samsung mobile, a small little flip-phone reminiscent of a Star Trek communicator. It looked a hell of a lot cooler than the standard-issue Nokia model I was using, and it boasted way more features too.

It didn’t take me long to realise, however, that it was the worst piece of crap gadget I’d ever endured. Using it was just excruciating – it’s little exaggeration to say that it featured not so much a user-interface as an impenetrable, never-ending aptitude test. Something as basic as sending a text required a baffling series of taps and menu choices that went on so long it felt like sending messages by Morse Code. All those features I thought might be handy were buried in obscure menus you needed a map to negotiate. All the time I had it, I kept wondering who at Samsung let this thing out the door? Did anybody actually use it before it was released? And if so, what kind of contempt for their user did they have? Five minutes with that phone would have the jury awarding full damages to Apple, no doubt about it.

How did Samsung go from designing junk like that to becoming the second most profitable phone manufacturer in the business, after Apple? Recall that seven years ago, Apple was releasing delightfully designed iPods and MacBooks and iMacs, the result of the painstaking design process we’re hearing about in this trial, and as we’re discovering, they were already hard at work inventing the iPhone.

Which brings us back to movie-version Mark Zuckerberg’s cutting quip, more appropriate than ever in this case: if Samsung could have invented the iPhone, Samsung would have invented the iPhone.

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