Has Apple Really Invented Anything?

Samsung Asks: What Has Apple Actually Invented?

Written by LALEC LIU

August 15, 2012 // 09:15 AM EST

In the ongoing legal frenzy over who copied who, it’s now Samsung’s turn to fight back, with the alleged iPhone copier arguing over the last couple days that Apple didn’t invent the technologies behind its patents.

One invention up for grabs is Apple’s iconic “pinch-to-zoom” feature, which Samsung attempted to demonstrate was actually invented years before the iPhone’s release by Mitsubishi. Samsung’s legal team brought on Clifton Forlines, a software developer that had created apps for a tabletop multi-touch device called the “Diamond Touch.” With the device, users could zoom in and out of images much like the iPhone. Not only that, Mitsubishi gave Apple a demo of what they were doing back in 2003, testified one of the engineers, Adam Bogue.

Here is Jeff Han, a research scientist for NYU’s Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences, showing off the same kind of feature in 2006:

This is the crux of Samsung’s philosophical argument. Apple isn’t the magical innovation machine they so claim to be. They didn’t invent the portable mp3 player, the smartphone or the tablet. What Apple has mastered, from the Apple II to the iPhone, is impeccable market timing, finding underdeveloped sectors and striking when the necessary technologies converge. This allows them to create an intuitive product fit for mainstream penetration. With their integrated top-down hardware-software approach, they’ve become the ultimate curators of “what’s new.” But Samsung argues that doesn’t mean they’re inventing anything.

However beautiful and innovative the iPhone is, the technologies that power it aren’t necessarily new. Perhaps this is why Apple is choosing to nitpick over trivialities likeslide-to-unlock or the patent they have on “tapping a phone number to call it.” For a company that prides itself on starting trends, they sure hate it when others follow.

With technology, copying isn’t just at the heart of competition, it’s the fabric of innovation, as Steve Jobs famously admitted. At the same time, we might be more apt to point out Apple’s innovation hypocrisy were it not for Samsung’s own shameless demeanor when it comes to developing products. Even in stealing, there’s a certain art to it, a set of understood rules. Samsung has by all means, crossed a few lines (seehere, here, here, here, here, here, here and here).

No matter how bad that looks, it’s important to keep in mind the realities. With just their first-mover status, Apple has done quite well for itself, propelled by the blockbuster successes of the iPod, iPhone and iPad, not including the $2.5 billion the company claims to have lost due to Samsung’s infringements. Consumers surely have little to complain about, blessed not just with iPhones but a sea of options and clones in varying prices, colors and sizes (in fact, larger sized screens is one of the main reasons).

But maybe it’s the realities that Apple is focused on. Even as the bitter war wages on in court, in the real world, Android continues to humble the iPhone with sales comprising 64.1 percent of the market during the quarter versus 43.4 percent a year ago while Samsung continues to build its lead as the number smartphone manufacturer in the world. What churns Apple the most surely isn’t just how much Samsung is copying them, but how successful Samsung has been at it.

Of course, sales of Apple’s latest paradigm pivot, the iPad, continues to soar but even in tablets, their marketshare over the next few years is more likely to decline than continue to rise with the arrival of true contenders like the Google Nexus series and Microsoft’s Surface.

Ultimately, the issue isn’t really about Samsung, it’s about Android, Google’s open-source operating system that Jobs vowed to smite from the earth. Remember the last time Apple took artistic authority over its less refined but more open counterpart? The company shriveled up and almost died, Microsoft won and for a while, Bill Gates was the richest man on the planet. Now, even if the company wins this protracted lawsuit, it would produce short term gains. In the long run, there’s only one way to transcend this fatal proposition: figure out the next big thing.

Reach Alec at @sfnuop