Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Apple and the Case of the Bumbling Design Thief

You know how classic mystery stories unfold with a series of strange events and then get near the end and the detective/hero character gets to a point where they say, "now let me tell you what really happened." As I've been following the Apple vs. Samsung trial, I recently came across one of those moments, a little bit of evidence that really frames the entire story in that flashback revelatory style. So, let me tell you what really happened...

You all know about this little company with a fruit-shaped logo. One of the things that the company had going for it was this design-centric ethos. They didn't just build stuff, they thought about what it should do, what it needed to do, and built systems to make those things work elegantly. This design ethos ran through everything they did, from the spacing of the type in their documentation to the ratio of round on their corners. Form, function and style were always closely integrated.

The iPhone was born from this process. It's operational elements incorporated functional design elements developed through years of process and work on the Mac platform. The metaphors for working within the virtual space were aided and cued by animation and graphics that synthesized an environment that was understandable, coherent and approachable as an interface. And in the same way that Apple forced developers to uphold standardized menu and interface structures in the Mac environment, they enforced the same level of control across the iPhone environment. When a new piece of software was allowed on the platform, it had to 'fit' into the platform.

Then Google went off cobbled together the Android OS. Perhaps it was spawned from some grand notion of open source, an idea that if a Terminator could have gone back in time and introduced Linux at the right moment in history, the Microsoft monopoly could have been thwarted. In some ways, iOS and Android are kind of like the Mac OS and Linux. Sure, there is a common Unix kernel, but Apple has invested a tremendous amount of time and effort building an interface for many of the underlying functional elements. And sometimes an integrated approach to a set of complicated functions is transformational.

And along came Android and a bunch of hardware manufacturers that saw it as an easy, ready-made platform for copying the iPhone. After all, from a technical perspective, it provided most of the same functionality, right? And it wasn't like most of these device hardware manufacturers had a lot invested in the software development side of the business. In the world of feature phones, a feature simply needed enough software to support its defined functionality. If it did, it did; it didn't have to be graceful or elegant.

Of course, the iPhone isn't just a phone. It's engineered to be more like a small computer that solves the phone problem in a way that meets Apple's standards. By that, I mean that the hardware is a platform, but what really makes the device is the software, what it does, and how it does it. In so many ways, this was at the heart of the magic underlying the device.

And so, when they attempt to echo this revolutionary product, our copying culprits simply assumed that they could slap some matching layers of functionality on the their devices and expect that it would work similarly -- or perhaps meet the standard of "good enough". Good enough works in a world that sells on feature sets and one louder. Good enough says that six mega-pixels equals six mega-pixels.

It's the bumbling assumption that a feature equals a feature, and that customers can't tell quality.

And so, entered into evidence at the Apple vs. Samsung trial is this wonderful piece of evidence showing how of Samsung -- after pumping out a weak, good enough version one of their product -- went through feature by feature trying to make their device work more like an iPhone. Here's a link to a post about the presentation on All Things D. And, if you find it interesting, here's a link to the presentation pdf file referenced in the post.

As I flipped through the pages of the presentation, what quickly became clear to me wasn't just how they were attempting to copy the iPhone -- it was how clearly it showed that they didn't understand the design. The presentation feature over 130 pages of examples. Each shows a what. None show an understanding of the underlying why. In short, they don't get it.

What your looking at here is like someone sitting inside the Louvre, making a crayon copy of the Mona Lisa and trying to sell that to you as though it were the original. And when 'customers' are not satisfied, they focus on which trying to make better and better reproductions, all the while missing the bigger picture.

If you remember some of those early smart-phone surveys, many Android users would respond with, "I want an iPhone as my next phone." What this presentation shows is that as much as they may have wanted to sell a product that was competitive to the iPhone. they really didn't know how to make a truly competitive product. Except by copying them. The 'openness' of Android's open source was too open. It didn't include enough design principles to navigate some of the structure and complex functionality that Apple had created with the iPhone.

Never underestimate the importance of design. This document provides about 130 case-studies on what that means.

No comments: