Where's the Samsung shaped dent in the universe?

It's not that Samsung doesn't continuously push the limits of hardware specifications and capabilities as much if not more than anyone else. They do. But they do so by systematically, institutionally copying what other vendors have already done first.

Samsung does it to such a degree, and with such a consistency, that it's flabbergasting they can show up in court, swear an oath, and claim anything otherwise. Now they could claim it doesn't matter, that all phones and tablets and icons should look alike, and would be understandable as a strategy. But claiming they don't copy? Absurd.

Before the iPhone, Samsung copied the BlackBerry with the BlackJack. RIM sued, and Samsung changed the name to Jack, but kept the same design. Then, as now, they looked at the market leader and rather than asking how they could make "what's next", they asked how they could make what would be as close as possible "next to" it on a shelf. Rather than setting a course for the future, they set out to subsume the present.

Following the iPhone, when Apple showed the industry what "was next", rather than trying to do to the iPhone, and later the iPad, what Apple did to Palm and BlackBerry, Table PC and netbooks, Samsung conscientiously, deliberately, made their own smartphones and tablets look and work as close to indistinguishably from Apple products as possible. They started with the Instinct and kept right on going with the Galaxy series.

And they didn't stop with iPhones or iPads, either, but shamelessly copied everything from icons to interfaces, plugs to ports, dongles to desktops. They cloned devices, like they had Photoshops's stamp brush made manifest on the factory floor.

This year Samsung introduced the Galaxy S III and began to visually differentiate themselves from Apple. The shape was less a slab and more a river-stone, the charging was inductive, the sharing a physical tap away, and the screen would even ripple like water when you touched it... Just exactly what Palm did with webOS and the Pre back in 2009.

As a gadget lover, even if you love Samsung, even if you don't want to admit it, it's a huge disappointment. A splinter in the mind that mars what are otherwise phenomenal devices. A shadow in the periphery that stops you from enjoying the full light of their accomplishments.

Even if you can rationalize "a black slab is a black slab" it's impossible to rationalize "a yellow flower on blue background icon for photos is a yellow flower icon on blue background for photos", or "the shape of AC adapters, dock cables, and desktop computers are..." well, you get the idea. Even if you can dismiss individual instances as coincidences, when taken as a whole, it's impossible to dismiss the depths of Samsung's unoriginality as anything other than blatant, bold-faced copying.

And lets face it, it works. Hitching their design train to Apple's engine has helped make Samsung the most successful Android manufacturer on the face of the earth, and the only truly profitable one. That is no doubt tremendous incentive, and explains why Samsung did it, and while they'll likely continue to do it.

Copying is inevitable. Great artists steal.

But as someone who marveled at the Handspring Treo, the BlackBerry, the iPhone, the Palm Pre, and the Nexus One, seeing the perpetual lack of innovation exhibited by Samsung is disheartening. Call Apple's litigations "anti-innovation" all you want, but how can you not recognize copying threatens innovation just as much as over-litigation, if not more? How can you not see how its end result is a depressing future filled with me-too products that do everything but delight and inspire?

I'm not ready to be done yet. I'm not ready to concede that the iPhone at Macworld or the Pre at CES are the last time I'll truly be amazed by leaps forward in mobile. I'm not ready to accept a years-long drought filled with cheap knock-offs and increasingly conventional, commodity devices.

I bought and owned a Nexus One. I bought and own a Nexus 7. I'd buy and own another HTC or Motorola Nexus in a heartbeat. I've never had the slightest urge to buy or own a Samsung mobile device -- because I already have a Treo and an iPhone, an iPad and a Palm Pre.

I would love to add a Samsung device to that list, an original, novel, inspiring take on mobile from one of the giants of the industry. The Galaxy Note and the upcoming Galaxy Note 10.1 are a start, but there has to be something beyond "with a stylus". There has to be a Samsung device that could be, for once, at the head of the design curve. A Samsung device that other manufacturers look to for inspiration and take their turn in copying outright.

Regardless of how the Apple vs Samsung trial turns out, that's the challenge Samsung faces. To move from replication to innovation. To take their place as not only a market leader but an industry leader. To stop copying the present and claim a role in shaping the future.

Apple II. Mac. iTunes. iPod. iPhone. iPad. Apple's has done it over and over again. Trinitron. Walkman. Sony has done it too, as have others.

Samsung has a chance next year. No doubt there'll be a Galaxy S4/Galaxy S IV, and no doubt Samsung is already planning it. They have a chance to zag instead of zig, to do something as original as Apple did in 2007 and Palm did in 2009. I sincerely hope they take it.

I hope they put a Samsung shaped dent in the universe.

Rene Ritchie
Contributor

Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.

252 Comments
  • knock off might be a bit harsh. they have some cool software/hardware designs that I would love Apple to implement. I wouldn't at all be upset for them copying/stealing them (and would it really be mentioned that way?). I wouldn't defend that they didn't copy a model and use it to build theirs. However, where the phone (not cheap accessories) design lies, its not a knock off. It did build off it of it however. That is an apparent truth. *edit: this is in response to Renie's comment. comment 8. not sure why it's up at the top of the comments.
  • Yes they do have some cool software particularly the new suite of S-Pen apps. But hardware design (and materials), Apple is still king. Samsung has that cheap feel to it even on their high end phones.
  • Rene you are the lead editor on this site yet often times I think it is your articles that are the most BS. I think you should try and be more professional with the articles you post and be less fanboyish. You have got to be the worse Apple fanboy I've ever come across. Maybe that's why you run this site? Who knows... but often times I can't take your articles seriously. At first I thought it was iMore that couldn't be taken seriously... but then I read other contributors' articles and realized it was primarily you. Try and be more professional and you'll probably be respected more not just by Apple users but by users of other products as well. Samsung is definitely important in the world. They make everything from mobile electronic devices to TV's, fridges and stoves. Samsung is pushing the limits of what can be done with mobile technology. Their tablets aren't necessarily market leaders yet... I like their Galaxy Note 10.1 but I wish it had a higher resolution screen. But when it comes to mobile phones they are the top dog right now... Samsung Galaxy S3 is the best phone on the market... and its sales numbers show that. You can't hate on a company because the icon on its phone is a graphic of a clock "just like Apple" has a graphic of a clock for its clock app icon. What do you expect Samsung to do? You want them to put a picture of a cat to represent the clock???
  • Samsung: great hardware, crappy software. But without them, there would be no iPhone. I should state that in my opinion, there are only 3 companies that are able to create great consumer platforms at the OS level: Apple, Google, and Microsoft. If anyone else is fiddling with the core OS, I don't want their product.
  • Sorry, your point gets a bit lost with all those personal attacks mixed in, so forgive me if I double check your point-- What you're saying is, besides the clock icon, you agree that Samsung copies Apple too much and you'd love to see a pure Samsung Galaxy S 4 as much as I would? I mean, yellow flowers on blue backgrounds are the universal icon for photos, right? Even though stock Android, HTC, and Motorola don't use them?
  • What I am saying is that you are going on and on about these tiny details and are not looking big picture. You're worked up because of the colour of an icon or that the same type of picture is on an icon. You show a picture of a Samsung Galaxy S phone with it's app drawer open and compare it to an iPhone even tho that app drawer is not the default interface for an Android phone. You show a Galaxy Tab 10.1 beside an iPad with the Galaxy Tab not in its standard interface orientation. You are looking at these smaller details and not looking big picture. If you do look big picture you would see that overall the devices are substantially different. And despite claims made by some... people who use these products are not going to confuse one company's product for another. I am not going to deny that there are details that are similar between Samsung and Apple products... Samsung wants to win over Apple consumers and familiarity is a large part of that. I am saying that overall Samsung devices are not just copies of Apple products... and that if you look at the device overall they are different.
  • The app drawer is not the default interface, yet Samsung used pics like the one above in it's ads and promotional material.. Hmmm....
  • "What I am saying is that you are going on and on about these tiny details and are not looking big picture." It is you who are missing the big picture. And that is that companies like Samsung steal the hard work of others. if they are allowed to succeed and put true innovators out of business, that hurts innovation for everyone.
  • "Samsung wants to win over Apple consumers and familiarity is a large part of that." I totally agree with that, iPhone was my 1st smart phone, but I find it rather disappointing limited, thus I look for android alternative, but at that time all other android was too much different and I find the way Samsung Galaxy interpret android UX is closer to iPhone, thus I stick with Samsung. Can we expect Rene to understand that? It's like hoping that 1 day chicken can learn to fly.
  • Um...actually chickens can fly! It's a myth that they can't.
  • Quick trivia... Who said "We have always been shameless about stealing good ideas” I'll give you a hint - it was no one in Samsung.
  • So you're saying that Apple steal ideas but Samsung aren't? Apple started working on their tablet in 2003, this morphed into the iPhone, and through all those years Apple solved problems that didn't exist in the mobile space yet, what do you do with spurious inputs from your face while talking on the phone? How do you in the best and easiest way lock/unlock a phone without it happening in your pocket? How do you handle quick typing on a touch screen when the nuts and bolts latency of the tech gets in the way? How do we present websites that are optimized for 1024x768 or larger on a 3.5" display? No one asked those questions before the iPhone came along, do you think Samsung did? What kinds of devices do you think they worked on while Apple worked on the iPhone?
  • "No one asked those questions before the iPhone came along, do you think Samsung did? What kinds of devices do you think they worked on while Apple worked on the iPhone?" Actually Samusng did. I use to own the Samsung i730, a phone that existed before the iPhone. I used to use their browser to view websites all the time. This browser had the ability to pinch and zoom and reflow text. =X=
  • The quote you are referring to comes from Steve Jobs 1995. The Lost Interview In response to the question "But how do you know what's the right direction?" Steve Jobs said: "Ultimately it comes down to taste. It comes down to trying to to expose yourself to the best things humans have done and then try to bring those things in to what you are doing. Picasso had a saying. He said good artists copy great artists steal. We have always been shameless about stealing great ideas. I think part of what made the Macintosh great was that the people working on it were musicians and poets and artists, and zoologists and historians who also happened to be the best computer scientists in the world. But if it hadn't been for computer science these people would have all been doing amazing things in life in other fields. And they brought with them to this effort [the Macintosh project] a very liberal arts attitude that we wanted to pull in the best we saw in these other fields into this field. I don't think you get that if you are very narrow." So the oft used quote is about about bringing parts of other disciplines, from literature, art and culture, into computer science and product design. What would, to use Jobs term, being very narrow mean in practice? Well it could mean endlessly dredging up a sentence from a Steve Jobs interview in 1995, taking it out of context, fetishising it, implying it is about one thing when it is about another, and then using it to prop up a delusional world view and a deliberately fallacious argument in defence of crass product cloners. That sort sort obtuse and pedantic behaviour leaves people without a shred of intellectual dignity and should be avoided like the plague.
  • Stealing good ideas is totally different than blatantly copying design or the whole product.
    Use what you learned from the competition and how they did it. Just go build your own and maybe try to do a better job of it.