Yesterday, Google revealed Pixel, a new AI-driven smartphone built to lure frustrated iPhone users away from Apple. And Google is doing it with hardware that's a dead ringer for the iPhone. Design theft? Or proof that, where form factor is concerned, the phone wars have ended?
Like the iPhone, the Pixel is a slender metal slab with rounded edges and contoured corners. Pixel doesn't have a home button, but the front features roughly the same screen-to-bezel ratio as the iPhone. Google placed the front camera in roughly the same location and used a similar capsule-shaped speaker for calls. Google's senior vice-president of hardware Rick Osterloh even bragged that "there's no unsightly camera bump" like the iPhone 7 has for the rear camera, but the Pixel's back side is pretty much the same otherwise with a camera in the top left corner and a flash next to it. In the spot where Apple places its logo, Google opted for a fingerprint sensor called "Pixel Imprint" that lets users unlock the phone with the tap of a finger. The Pixel also has similar detailing as the iPhone 6 in terms of antenna lines, those slender plastic outlines at the top and bottom of the back. The volume buttons and SIM card slots on the Pixel and iPhone are—you guessed it—practically carbon copies. This is all to say the phones are housed in virtually identical shells.
"I’m not entirely sure Google won’t be sued—or at least get a nasty letter," Sarah Burstein, a professor at the University of Oklahoma College of Law and an expert on design law, says of the physical similarities. "You don’t need to be a precise line-by-line copy to infringe but you've got to come close. The official test is it has to look the same to an ordinary observer."
"Apple has a very diligent and zealous patent prosecution council who have amassed a rather formidable portfolio of design patents covering not just the entire look of every iPhone, but basically any sub part or fragment you can think of, which is only slight hyperbole," Burstein says. "You see they claimed the flat-front face, the bezel plus the home button, and they’ve gotten a lot of patents since the Samsung case started. It’s very possible that if there are any very small areas that match—even the fact that it has a rectangular face with a little capsule at the top where the ear speaker is—in theory things like that Apple could have a plausible legal claim depending on the current scope of its portfolio."
Of course, Google has plenty of legal might of its own. "I’d be shocked if they didn’t thoroughly vet every product with their very sophisticated, very smart legal team—they’re aware of these issues," Burstein says. "I know they’ve been watching the design patent space very closely and I wouldn’t be surprised if they designed around every Apple patent they could find. Or maybe they want to fight the fight." (Neither Apple nor Google responded to Co.Design's request for comment by press time.)
The Supreme Court's ruling on the Apple v. Samsung case will likely set precedents on design patent infringement. One of Apple's major claims is that Samsung violated its trade dress—the overall look and feel of a product—which included traits like a rectangle with four evenly rounded corners, a flat clear surface, a display screen under the surface, substantial black borders above and below the display screen, and narrower black borders on either side of the screen. The courts said Apple's trade dress claims were invalid. It just so happens that these are the very same attributes that Google is using on Pixel.
Yes, the Pixel and the iPhone are doppelgangers, but that's almost a moot point as far as consumers are concerned. Phones have been iterated and pared back to nearly an ideal form. Like the iPad, they're approaching a solved design problem (well, almost). Today, the real innovations in smartphone design are about software. Companies will woo consumers with helpful AI assistants and interfaces that feel human and accessible—not with rounded corners. So how can Google get away with a phone that looks just like an iPhone? Because the stakes are a lot higher elsewhere.