With the court rooms often filled with design based technology patents, it seems to be a good time to break down where the main schools of design are and how technology has made way for competition in product design.
The First Design War (Technology)
Before there were PC wars, the more fundamental battles in technology took place in silicon. To put things briefly, the first real battle began at memory chips. Memory chips were less complex to design and was basically repeative. The more memory you needed the more ‘copies’ of the original design you replicated. As such, these designs were easy to copy.
Historically, firms based in United States have been the engine of innovation and many Asian firms were quick copiers.
Historically, firms based in United States have been the engine of innovation and many Asian firms were quick copiers. Intel first started off in the DRAM business but found Asian firms mainly from Japan and Korea to be really quick in copying their designs. With scale economies in their favor, they were able to produce memory chips at lower cost thus making reducing Intel’s market share by a significant portion. The reason as stated was simple – memory design was very easy to copy.
Intel then branched off into making microprocessors which were complex and tougher to replicate. Increasing microprocessor capabilities required new designs rather than DRAM-styled replication. Together with a new patent system to protect US firms, Intel slowly but surely reached its mammoth status and partnered its would-be competitors in Asia to be production arms for its design. Because the designs changed in each generation, it made no sense for Asian firms to be a quick second and make copies.
This was how the first technological design war ended. This also sowed the seeds of the protective but now much derided US Patent System. This system worked well for such areas but is rather questionable as innovation moved towards product design.
The first battle was pitted within the engineering sphere. What we see this century revolved around product design. There is less focus on the innards of electronic devices and more on the its outward appearance. Formerly, buying a PC wasn’t about how good it looked but rather how fast it was or how big a memory or hard disk space it had. Ever since, dual core processors became the baseline, clock speeds tapered off past 3.2 ghz and 4GB of SDRAM was the bare minimum – we’ve reached an age of ‘powerful enough’ and the new battle lines were drawn at external design.
We’ve reached an age of ‘powerful enough’ and the new battle lines were drawn at external design.
Prior to the 2000s, no one cared if IBM (later Lenovo) or HP or Dell or Acer PCs looked the same. Heck, they all looked the same. We went from white boxes to grey boxes before black became the new sexy outfit for your computer. There were no design patents and it was ridiculous to for any of the above to sue each other over how their box looked like.
The change in 2000s was not caused by Apple or its flagship product – the iPod Touch (note that the iPhone is based off the iPod Touch). The change was caused by the sharp drop in the need to be faster. Apple’s strong design focus never paid off until we reached this stage. No one cared if your product looked sexier if their product was simply faster and more efficient. But once all that became a non issue – Apple’s design focus moved from irrelevance to a core strength.
Apple had always been a copier of industrial designs, thus Job’s admission that they do copy.
Apple had always been a copier of industrial designs, thus Job’s admission that they do copy. It’s major products are copies or rip offs of Braun’s design. Have a look at this (from Gizmodo):
The difference is that these were mainly similar only in design. The products are widely different. But it is fair to say Apple drew inspiration or simply directly adapted designs that were already out there. They did not magically come up with designs on their own.
Any self respecting, honest designer will tell you two things. First, they look at what is beautiful and attempt to create something new with elements of it. Second, they hate outright copying competitors because that is an admission of inferiority. To Apple, Braun wasn’t a competitor and they felt completely fine to be inspired by Braun.
As a designer myself, Apple did copy more than what a real designer would allow himself to be inspired by. But it must be remembered that Apple is not purely a design firm. They do have to handle the engineering side of things so ripping off would not have bothered them as much.
In Europe comes its flagship from Finland – Nokia has always been a company based around design. It’s main market is purely consumer electronics unlike Apple who was strictly a PC maker before moving into this sector in early 2000. Nokia’s designs have always been original, funky and beautiful. No one would ever hold Nokia as copying another firm.
Nokia remains one of the very few firms involved in technology that no one will ever dare to say it copied from another.
Nokia remains one of the very few firms involved in technology that no one will ever dare to say they copied from another. Their focus on design remains a core business policy even more so than that at Apple.
I have not seen a tech firm that has given so much effort in design as Nokia. It holds many design conferences and works with students and developers in both hardware and software design. You would have mistaken them to be a design firm if it didn’t build such a name for itself in the mobile space in the 90s.
This is why Nokia and Apple will never cross paths. Nokia has its own philosophy in design and from it has already spawn multiple designs that are widely different and innovative. Nokia is a design leader in its own right and even as its mobile space gets encroached because of its technological weakness in clinging on to Symbian, you are unlikely to find more sources of original design than from the Finnish giant.
As mentioned earlier, Asia has never been a place where designs were forefront. This is heavily generalizing but Asians tend to be efficient producers rather than inspiring innovators. I am Asian and life in this region is all about speed and efficiency. There’s no time to sit around and admire the beauty or indulge in artistic appreciation.
Sony began in the land of blatant copiers of the mid 1900s – Japan. But it was one of the very few Asian firms that improved on current designs, leading to its own focus – sharp, clean lines.
Sony was one of the very few Asian firms that improved on current designs, leading to its own focus – sharp, clean lines.
Many people wrongfully credit Apple for the chiclet keyboard when Sony was its original creator. Like Apple, Sony was not as design orientated as Nokia but nevertheless did put an effort to create a consistent brand image.
Sony’s deterioration was due to poor business decisions. The company grew too big and was unable to move forward quickly and swiftly. It is similar to the way Microsoft is before their current Windows 8 push across all platforms. Sony is in the midst of rectifying that and it would be good to see Asia’s current only design flag bearer return to good times.
HP, Dell, Lenovo, Acer, Samsung, HTC, etc have no internal design philosophy. They started life as hardware makers with no regard for a distinct brand image. It served them well in the past. While their ‘designs’ were similar, their differentiating points were value and price.
You will never find something new and visually different from these brands. It has never been in their nature and unless things drastically change in future, it will continue to be the same.
I hope this rather lengthy write up has differentiated product design from technology and has divided companies based on their design priorities. Sometimes, those in the know wonder why Samsung is fighting Apple on design. It’s like watching a football team take on a basketball team in a basketball match.
As technology stagnates at its current point, such lines are now blurred. What you will continue to see from now is Apple, Nokia and Sony continuing to be design thought leaders while the rest will continue to copy.
The only difference is this – Apple is the only one out of the three that utilizes legislation as a corporate weapon. And history simply states – he that lives by the sword, dies by the sword.