Co.Design

How Samsung Designed Its New Galaxy Nexus To Skirt Apple's IP

Of all the things Samsung's new Galaxy Nexus smartphone is, there's one thing it isn't: An iPhone. And there's a good reason for that. Samsung designed it to dodge Apple's iPhone IP.

Samsung has revealed its latest flagship Android-powered phone, the Galaxy Nexus, after a slight delay. Samsung and Google attributed the lateness to deference to Steve Jobs’s passing.

Now, however, thanks to statements made by Samsung’s president of mobile, Shin Jong-kyun, we know that the entire phone was designed around Apple—specifically to avoid future legal battles.

Shin spoke to the press before the launch, and noted that Samsung’s plans from now on include avoiding "everything we can" in terms of patent battles with Apple, and that it is taking "patents very seriously." The whole field is complex and it can prove hard to identify infringing patents, according to Shin, and the firm is working to make the Nexus "100 percent free" from Apple lawsuits.

Samsung skeptics may be tempted to look at the trouble surrounding the Galaxy line of tablets and smartphones, and posit that the Nexus is Samsung’s first honest attempt at creating a high-end iPhone competitor that doesn’t rip off the iPhone itself.

And looking at the device, first impressions suggest that even the chassis of the phone is a departure from Apple’s design—while it is still, obviously, a slab format with a glass front pierced by a speaker grille, with its curved screen and generally rounded corners, it’s definitely different from Apple’s more straight format.

It’s likely that Shin meant such work didn’t stop at the outside of the smartphone, and that the circuitry and algorithms inside the phone have also been crafted to skirt Apple-protected innovations…but we’ll have to wait for a detailed teardown, and perhaps a lawsuit from Apple itself to see if this is the case. Spec for spec, the two phones are certainly different—for example with the Nexus running a 1.2GHz processor, and sporting a 5-megapixel rear camera compared to the 800MHz Apple A5 CPU and 8-megapixel unit, and NFC being a key part of Samsung’s phone but not Apple’s.

Part of the disagreements between Apple and numerous Android phone makers, including Samsung, have also centered on the user experience—with court documents from Apple v. Samsung demonstrating that even the home page of the two phones was more or less identical, right down to the approximate placement of icons and colors and shapes used for individual apps (looking at this famous image that surfaced online recently, it’s hard to see that Samsung has any sort of defense against entirely cloning Apple’s designs).

The Galaxy Nexus is the first phone to run Android’s latest flavor, dubbed Ice Cream Sandwich, and while parts of this design are out of Samsung’s control, it at least appears that some of the more obvious Apple-sourced design ideas have been avoided. For example, the Galaxy’s app switching function is much more graphical, and while the phone does support Google-powered voice recognition that is, in some ways, comparable to Apple’s Siri, it also includes tricks like face-recognition unlocks that Apple doesn’t have.

But the Galaxy Nexus hasn’t entirely dodged all design cloning accusations. As John Gruber of DaringFireball has noted, the new font used throughout Ice Cream Sandwich, dubbed Roboto, is "definitely a lot more Helvetica-esque than Droid Sans (the old Android font) was." Gruber says he wouldn’t "call it a rip-off" of Helvetica, but he doubts "most people could tell them apart, and the upper case R is almost shameless." That’s controversial enough due to the protected nature of the Helvetica design. But Josh Topolsky of ThisIsMyNext has also shone a spotlight on Google’s design-drive in the new OS—speaking to the head of Android’s user experience Matias Duarte. Duarte was poking fun at other UX designers at the moment, and their penchant for "faux wood panelling" and "airport lavatory signage" which are "juvenile" he thinks. This is being taken by some as a direct assuault on Apple’s frills and details on some of its new apps (the Corinthian leather-inspired UI of Find My Friends, for one) and Microsoft’s bold text-on-panels UI in Windows Phone 7. Google skeptics will note, with irony, that Google’s old-fashioned and potentially user-hostile design themes across many of its products mean it has no legs to stand on in this argument.

This is a design, PR, and possibly legal problem for Google, mainly, rather than Samsung—but it’s refreshing that the newest Android departs a little more from designs that feel distinctly Apple-y. And these differences help demarcate the Nexus in the marketplace a little, possibly helping Samsung’s goal of moving away from the iPhone.

But other critics say Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich hasn’t yet solved many of Google’s user experience problems, including a pervasive sluggishness in response to touchscreen input (even with the super-fast Nexus’s CPU purring away at 50% more speed than the iPhone 4S’s). That may prove to be more of a problem for Samsung than lawsuits from Apple which, Shin noted, will be protracted fights and have already meant what Samsung’s losing is "pride in our brand."