Imitation and innovation: A false dichotomy

Matthew Ahasay, Opinion Editor

Author Charles Caleb Colton said, “Imitation is the most sincere form of flattery.” If that’s the case then Apple should feel flattered by Samsung Mobile. As you may have heard on Aug. 24, Korean consumer electronics giant Samsung lost a billion-dollar patent case to Apple over the design of their smart phones and related user interfaces.

Although the ruling signals an early victory for Apple, the aftermath of the court’s ruling could prove far more detrimental than beneficial to Apple and the anticipated success of the iPhone 5.

Apple grew from a garage startup to an iconic staple of consumer electronics worldwide by creating devices with sleek, minimalist designs and beautiful, user-friendly interface.

How exactly did Apple get these ideas? Did they employ design wizards who conjured up brilliantly elegant, original designs, or did they borrow from and in some cases even imitate other company’s designs? Let’s let late Apple CEO Steve Jobs answer that question.

Jobs said, “Picasso had a saying: ‘Good artists copy, great artists steal.’ We have always been shameless about stealing great ideas…”.

This mantra has been prevalent throughout Apple’s reign as king of design. From Jobs’ infamous visit to Xerox in 1979, where he reportedly got the idea for a mouse and user interface, to the eerily similar designs of the 1st generation iPod and the Braun T3 pocket radio. Apple has always understood that innovation is derivative of using aspects of other’s ideas.

You might be thinking to yourself that copying and stealing are one and the same, and therefore wrong. In some cases, such as academia, it certainly is, but when it comes to certain industries, copying and borrowing ideas can actually be conducive to the advancement of the industry.

In order for new trends to begin, the old trend must be considered old and overdone. In order to achieve that effect, everyone must understand that it’s trendy and then copy it until it becomes cliché (think Ray-Ban Wayfarers). As the trend is copied it fuels the need for the next trend or fad, which requires innovation. Copying then, in this instance can be considered a catalyst for innovation.

Copying isn’t just good for the industry and the companies selling you goods. When products are similar, such as the navigation on smart phones, it allows for consumers to be familiar with certain aspects of other devices allowing for a more intuitive and pleasant experience.

Although Apple has won the suit and a billion-dollar settlement, they have lost a large amount of respect from consumers and from their fan base.

Consumer’s negative reactions towards Apple’s suit are a sign of progress. Apple is known for having one of the most die-hard fan bases and seeing this kind of criticism could act as a deterrent to other companies who might decide to file a similar suit.

If other companies do decide to begin filing suits over functionality patents, it could send the market into a dangerous spiral of poor quality devices and decreased functionality. This would be especially true of devices from HTC, LG, and Motorola who barely break even in the market and can’t risk a billion-dollar settlement from using certain features.

As the dust settles, the future of Apple is still unclear. While the suit will most likely not affect the immediate sales of the iPhone 5, future sales could suffer as Samsung has begun litigation against the use of LTE technology within the newest Apple product.

What is increasingly clear is that if more companies decide to go down the path of lawsuits over functionality, innovation and consumers are likely to suffer.