Does Apple Have a Point About Design? Part 1: Smartphones & Tablets

Published on Author Eli Fennell


It would be an aphorism by now to point out that Apple is obsessed with protecting their signature design.  Of course, their definition of signature design based on their pattern of litigation appears to be whatever they can get away with claiming in court, but this isn’t reflected in their own designs, which are fairly uniform, even if all the iPhone 5 rumors prove to be true.

Given Apple’s slow iteration cycle for products (one refresh on any given type of device per year at most), they can’t keep up on specs, so what they focus on instead is design.  Any slight spec bump will be viewed as somehow revolutionary regardless.

Steve Jobs grossly overstated the importance of design in the PC market, which is why their litigation against PC makers has never been as extreme as against smartphone and tablet makers. Apple’s signature designs for PC’s were all too easy to work around, and consumers didn’t care.  To put it bluntly: most people hardly care what their desktop PC’s look like as long as it has a monitor, a tower, and the hardware and software they want from it.

Design was only marginally more important for laptops, notebooks, and other portable PC devices.  PC’s are more tools than they are toys, and even less are they fashion statements.  A smartphone or tablet is another matter entirely.  Apple’s obsessive focus on design matters more for devices which are, in fact, viewed by many consumers as a “luxury” and a fashion item.

Not all consumers feel this way, to be sure, some couldn’t care less what it looks like, but it’s probably no coincidence that the best selling (individually) mobile devices have distinctive designs, including the iPhone/iPad, Galaxy SII, Galaxy Note, and Galaxy SIII among others.  This holds true across OEM’s.

With the Galaxy SIII, Samsung has defined a style for its Android flagships so unique that under no circumstance could Apple realistically claim a similarity in look and feel of the device (though I don’t think it scales well to tablets).  Sony’s Xperia series, similarly, has its own distinctive design aesthetic, as does Motorola’s Razr series, which itself began as a highly distinctive series of feature phones.

Google’s Nexus series has also been generally distinct from anything Apple makes, enough so that an appeals court overturned Judge Koh’s preposterous pre-trial ban on the Galaxy Nexus, and may be why Apple has held back from attacking the Nexus 7 this long (it’s hard to argue “look and feel” when the iPad feels like a slab and the Nexus 7 feels like a leather glove).

It’s less clear to me how to define the signature style of HTC’s flagships, or LG’s, and despite early successes, both now find themselves struggling.  In a sea of “sames”, or variations on a theme, a good signature design is one that stands out.

If Apple’s litigation may have helped to bring some positive changes about (which doesn’t mean I support their litigiousness, by any means), both for Android and for the devices it runs on, one of them may be the quest for more distinctive smartphone designs.  In this regard smartphones are starting to mirror the automotive industry: there are plenty of technically distinctive but easily forgettable designs.

For many consumers that will be acceptable, but for others, style matters.  And not just style, either, but a certain degree of stylistic consistency in a series of automobiles.  Mustangs may change from one model year to the next, but anyone familiar with the signature look and feel of a Mustang likely recognizes one at first glance.  Volkswagen’s Beetle is another example: a Beetle is so obviously a Beetle that it inspired the classic car ride game Punch Buggy.  Imagine if someone else had been able to ape the look and feel of the Beetle.

In that regard, Samsung’s comfortable position at the head of the Android pack may have made them lazy.  Google did warn them, after all (a fact that will be on their side in any future litigation).  The Galaxy SIII is as distinctive as any reasonable standard should expect it to be from an iPhone, and is a resounding success.

So, while Apple’s claims to signature design have been overly broad, truly distinctive designs have generally withstood any litigation, but more importantly have often done better on the market than their more generic counterparts.  Design matters, and while Apple has no monopoly on design, their opponents may at times have shown too little inclination to innovate their own.

I love technology and how it changes our lives. There’s something almost spiritual about how new technologies connect and empower us. And it’s really cool, too.