Eight years on, Apple iPhone team still sore about Samsung phones

The trial over damages related to patent infringement also gives a look into how Apple designs its products.

Stephen Shankland principal writer
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Stephen Shankland
5 min read
Richard Howarth, a senior director of Apple's design team, testifies about Apple iPhone patents, examined by Apple attorney Joe Mueller as US District Judge Lucy Koh looks on.

Richard Howarth, a senior director of Apple's design team, testifies about Apple iPhone patents, examined by Apple attorney Joe Mueller as US District Judge Lucy Koh looks on.

sketch by Vicki Behringer

It's been years since Samsung smartphones were found to have infringed several Apple iPhone patents, but some folks are still sore.

"It was blatantly ripped off. They tried to steal the essential flavor of the iPhone," said Richard Howarth, a senior director of Apple's design team and one of two lead iPhone designers, testifying at a damages trial for Samsung's infringement where Apple is seeking $1 billion. "They were trying to rip off part of the iconic nature and say, 'We're cool, too,'" he said Tuesday. 

Howarth, who has worked at Apple for 22 years, is listed as inventor on two design patents central to the Apple-Samsung patent case: US Patent No. D618,677 (D'677 for short), which describes a black, rectangular, round-cornered front face; and US Patent No. D593,087 (D'087), which describes a similar rectangular round-cornered front face plus the surrounding rim, known as the bezel.

Samsung lawyer John Quinn, on cross-examination, grilled Howarth on whether the patents protect the entire phone or just a portion. Grudgingly, Howarth admitted that a phone could be disassembled, given the right tools, but argued that Apple's patents are bigger. "The phone is an idea. The whole thing is the phone... You can't take just a part and say 'Let's protect just that.'"

Apple argues the patents are central to a unitary product -- a phone -- and thus Samsung's payment should be based on the profits from all infringing phones. But Samsung, boosted by a Supreme Court ruling, is arguing it only should be penalized for infringements of phone components like bezels and screen glass.

The jury's decision in this case -- the fourth in a series dating back to Apple's original suit in 2011 -- will help shape how powerful design patents really are in the world of tech. An earlier jury trial determined that several Samsung phones released in 2010 and 2011 infringed five Apple patents.

Samsung has already paid Apple $548 million, but a $399 million portion of that could be reduced or increased depending on how the jury sees things. The case centers on the issue of what exactly constitutes an "article of manufacture" that a patent governs. Apple argues that it should be the entire product -- a phone in this case -- but Samsung is making the case that it could just be a component of a phone.

Tony Blevins, Apple's vice president of procurement, who mostly testified in a matter-of-fact tone of voice, got a little emotional talking about his reaction to seeing Samsung's phones.

"A small group of us had worked tirelessly on this product for years," he said. "We worked late nights and weekends, we sacrificed family time, we missed birthdays. We filed for patents and tried to do things in the right way so we could enjoy the fruits of our labor." When the Samsung phones arrived, he said, "It was every negative emotion you could imagine."

A look at Apple designs

With Apple trying to show the importance of its design work, the trial is showing aspects of an ordinarily secret process.

An illustration in Apple's US Patent No. D618,677 (D'677 patent)

An illustration in Apple's US Patent No. D618,677 (D'677 patent), a design patent Samsung infringed with phones in 2010 and 2011.

Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

Apple rejected "hundreds and hundreds" of iPhone prototypes before releasing the first model in 2007, Howarth said. One had an octagonal bezel, one was rounded only on the left and right edges, and one had a light-gray front. "It didn't represent what we were trying to do, which was create something that felt friendly and understandable," Howarth said. "It looked pretty big and square from the front. It felt bitty -- just lots of bits."

The eventual design embodied what Apple wanted. "It felt like something you could get your head around. It wasn't buttons everywhere," Howarth said.

Apple's designs start with sketches and models then progress to 3D milled prototypes that are a good representation of the idea, Howarth said. "We're there to guide the product trough until it gets to the customer, so we can make sure our idea arrives intact," he said.

Blevins, who had to buy all the components from vendors, said Apple's approach is very different from the rest of the electronics industry's.

"The vast majority of companies use a building-block philosophy," finding the best components and then assembling them into a product. "Apple did absolutely the exact opposite," starting with a design and then coming up with components that fit. He spent two and a half weeks in a factory trying to figure out how to shrink the iPhone's vibration motor down to the allowed size.

Apple's iPhone plan 'risking everything'

Developing the iPhone was a chancy move for Apple, a company that hadn't made a phone before and was taking on companies that at the time were much larger, testified Greg Joswiak, Apple's vice president of product marketing. "We were risking everything that was making Apple big at that time," he said.

At a patent infringement damages trial, Greg Joswiak, Apple's vice president of product marketing, answers questions from Apple attorney Bill Lee about Apple's history of product design.

At a patent infringement damages trial, Greg Joswiak, Apple's vice president of product marketing, answers questions from Apple attorney Bill Lee about Apple's history of product design.

Sketch by Vicki Behringer

But there was a risk to not making an iPhone, too, Joswiak said. Apple made iPod music players and realized it would be a "gigantic threat" if phone makers added music abilities, Joswiak says. Consumers wouldn't want to carry two devices.

More than once Apple lawyers showed jumbled arrays of pre-iPhone phones -- flip phones, keyboard phones, candy-bar phones, and slider phones, though not much in the way of touch-screen phones like the LG Prada. Apple's point: the iPhone showed a better design, something consumers and competitors rapidly realized.

"We weren't trying to create something that was already on the market. We were trying to create something entirely new," Joswiak said.

Samsung product advantages

But Samsung countered that there were other reasons to buy phones than the design patents for bezels and rectangular screens with black backgrounds. One example was an Apple study on why people considering iPhones bought an Android model instead.

Among the buyers, 48 percent said they wanted to stick with their current carrier, when iPhones until 2011 were only available on AT&T in the US; 36 percent said they trusted the Google brand; 30 percent wanted a larger screen; and 26 percent wanted better integration with Google services like Gmail and Google Docs voice; and 25 percent wanted turn-by-turn navigation.

Samsung tried pinning Apple's witnesses down on whether iPhones were made of separate components, a point in its favor about a narrower scope for the infringed patents, including through questions about Apple teardowns that let it scrutinize rival phones. Joswiak, though, took an opportunity to take a potshot at Samsung on that point.

"We do tear them apart to see what's on the inside, but we don't copy what they do," Joswiak said. "That's the difference between doing what's right and wrong."

First published May 15, 4:24 p.m. PT.
Update, 5:01 p.m.:
Adds details about Apple's design process. Update, 10:30 p.m.: Adds details from Greg Joswiak testimony.

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