Apple’s products all have a certain look to them. Steve Jobs and Jonathan Ive wouldn’t have it any other way. The question is whether everyone is ripping off Apple’s designs at this point in time – and in the most glaring of fashions. It’s a question that is being asked in protracted legal battles around the world, and that’s no exaggeration.
Apple is the absolute master of obtaining patents over the most vague features of its products – even the designs, whether they be very obvious practical sensibilities or something that is present more for visual appeal. I guess the ultimate blame for this lies with the USPTO (United States Patent and Trademark Office), but Apple certainly hasn’t helped the situation. Which is why I’m happy to rip on them over this issue.
Apple’s design sensibility is fantastic. Whether you love or hate the company and its legion of fanboys, few people could reject that assertion. This design sensibility is one way in which Apple stands out from the crowd; a crowd which contains a multitude of other tech manufacturers all releasing devices which, though they do what is expected of them, don’t look anything special.
All of Apple’s main line of products follow the principles of industrial design, which seeks to make consumer products look iconic as well as be functional. And that’s exactly what Apple’s products do. Most of that has been created since the Second Coming of Steve Jobs – the iPod, iPhone, iPad, iMac – are iconic and would even look at home in museums.
Other companies have witnessed this changing of strategy and how it has helped Apple grow from an also-ran into the biggest company in the world (for the time being). And there is no doubt that many are following Apple’s lead. Apple releases a product, and then a handful of companies release similar products, in terms of functionality, features, and design.
However, we shouldn’t forget that Apple didn’t invent personal media players or tablet computers, instead the company weeded out the flaws in existing products and brought them into the mainstream. So Apple is just as guilty of copycat syndrome as any other company, it’s just that it spends time getting the design and functionality of the devices absolutely correct before launch, often spending years doing so.
With that in mind there is a case for arguing that Apple doesn’t design its products, it undesigns them. Yes, that’s a made-up word. At least according to my spell checker. But it seems a fitting way in which to describe how Apple goes from concept to finished product.
Steve Jobs was, by all accounts, a hard man to work for. And one of the reasons for this was his desire to make everything just work, and in as simple a fashion as possible. Why have 10 buttons when you can have a scroll wheel? Why have endless menus when you can simplify the choices down to just the bare essentials? This means that Apple starts with an over-fussy design and then undesigns it. Essentially removing all the extraneous crap in order to leave only what is necessary.
It’s a concept that Thomas Baekdal explores in a brilliant article comparing the iPad with the Samsung Galaxy Tab. He argues that Apple pared the design down to its core essentials, meaning Samsung, and any other tablet manufacturer, has to add extra, non-essential flairs in order to differentiate their product and avoid infringing on Apple’s design patent. Which is, quite frankly, ludicrous.
All Consumer Electronics Look The Same
Looking at the bigger picture – cameras all look very similar. As do wristwatches. Washing machines. Toasters (see above). Name a product, whether practical or otherwise, and there are dozens of examples from dozens of companies, all of which look almost identical. Why? Because design always comes second to functionality.
Cameras need to be held facing forward with some kind of view finder at the back, and be light and portable. Wristwatches need to fit comfortably on the wrist and have an easy to read clock-face. Washing machines need to have a drum with holes in and have trays for powder and liquid within easy reach. Toasters need to have bread-shaped spaces and some kind of control mechanism at the side.
Functionality inspires design.
In The End, Does It Matter?
When all is said and done, does it actually matter? Surely it should come down to a lot more than how a product looks. I’m sure the most-dedicated Apple fanboys will tear me to pieces for saying so, but if I was Apple I’d look at any hint of copying as nothing more than a compliment to the company and the team who created the product in question.
The endless legal battles involving patents often awarded before smartphones and tablets were even imagined suggests a lack of self-belief on the part of Apple. It clearly isn’t confident enough in its products to believe they will outsell the competition no matter how much they may look similar to Apple’s originals. Which, often times, aren’t even all that original.
As always feel free to comment, whether you agree or disagree with any of the above. I do love a good argument…