The generally mind-numbing arena of patent litigation broke into the mainstream news this week as smartphone titans Apple and Samsung joined battle in a potential multibillion-dollar lawsuit about infringements of patents on everything from wireless technologies to rounded edges on a device.
Beyond the details of this particular case looms the larger question: Are all the other smartphones out there just iPhone knockoffs?
"Frankly, when I look at the iPhone at the launch in 2007, it was revolutionary," said Brad Akyuz, an analyst who follows the wireless industry for research firm NPD. But he also points out that the components were not unique. "They [Apple] are not the ones who invented the touchscreen," said Akyuz.
In fact, smartphones with touchscreens have been around for nearly 20 years (at least as concept products). They first went mainstream in 2001, when Kyocera brought out the QCP 6035. Granted, it required using a stylus, in a process that was less like tapping and more like carving into wax. And you had to flip down the keypad to access the screen.
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Something more like the iPhone appeared later in 2001 when Samsung brought out the SPH-i300. This smartphone had no keyboard, just a touch screen — though there were physical navigation and shortcut buttons at the bottom. Looking at the phone now is like finding a crude cubist painting in a medieval tomb. It's not quite modern, but it's unexpectedly prescient.
Beyond the large touchscreen and lack of keyboard, the iPhone's "Home" button is the third iconic feature — and also not completely original. Windows smartphones, for example, also had a Home button, albeit among many other buttons.
The fourth key feature of the iPhone — and for many people the most compelling reason to get it — is the availability of apps, now totaling more than 500,000. Here again, Apple wasn't first.
The Palm-based Treo smartphones were the original great app devices. In the heyday, there were tens of thousands of Treo apps. Sites like Treonauts helped readers navigate the world of those apps the way that sites like Appolicious do for the apps of today.
It's easy to forget now, but there was no App Store when the first iPhones went on sale on June 29, 2007. The device had just a few built-in apps, such as the calendar and Web browser.
The App Store didn’t come until July 11, 2008 with Apple's iPhone 2.0 software and the first 500 Apple-approved apps. Programmers, however, had long been hacking into, or "jailbreaking," the devices so they could install their own home-brew programs.
And it's often these apps that make the iPhone fantastic. Apple didn't create Instagram or Angry Birds, Foursquare or Shazam. People took a gadget with limited functions but lots of potential and transformed it into a seemingly limitless device.
Fifth, and rather ironic, even the name "iPhone" isn't Apple's. It belonged to the Linksys division of Cisco and was originally the name for its line of Skype-connected home telephones.
Despite all this, and many other cases of borrowing ideas, no one can say that Apple didn't revolutionize the world of smartphones. With the iPhone, the devices went from clunky geek curiosities to mainstream products that nearly everyone wants.
Perhaps the single greatest innovation was the capacitive touchscreen. Instead of the hard tap with a stylus or fingernail that other smartphones required, the iPhone's screen responded to just the softest touch. No more navigation buttons. Just tap or slide to go anywhere.
Apple didn't invent this technology, points out IDC analyst William Stofega, who said that important research on that technology had been going on for years. And the LG Prada phone had a capacitive screen before the iPhone came out. But Apple made the move to go big with what was an uncommon, pricey piece of hardware and to marry it with the right interface.
Apple tempered all the capabilities that the original apps — and later hundreds of thousands of others — provided by making the home button the only button. No matter how far you strayed, you could always get back to the beginning by clicking that button, like Dorothy clicking her heels.
Those are the two ways that Apple revolutionized smartphones: by having the guts to employ the latest, albeit expensive, tech and by balancing complex capabilities with a simple, even pretty, interface for accessing them.