I remember when automobile brands were highly distinctive. If you were to see a '59 Cadillac DeVille driving down the street, there was no question that it was a Caddy. Studebaker, made right here in my hometown of South Bend, Indiana, was another classy shop, with world-class design that stood out from the pack. Today, for the most part, automobiles all look the same, and by necessity, they have many components that are similar. They all use round steering wheels, they all use the same type of door handle, and for the most part, they're pretty generic in basic design across the board.
Yet, you don't see General Motors suing Toyota because their cars look the same, and from the back, you really can't tell the difference any more between a Toyota and a Chevrolet. The huge award Apple won against Samsung recently is based on the same observance—two products that have the same goal and purpose, which look somewhat similar.
Make no mistake, this was a strategic lawsuit, and it wasn't really even targeted at Samsung, even though they suffer the most immediate ill effect. This was a shot at Google's popular and successful Android system, which poses a significant threat to Apple. The threat isn't because it looks similar—the threat is in the more open and superior Android business model, which allows it to run on multiple hardware architectures rather than just one, as in the case of Apple's iOS. Apple's strategy from the very beginning has been to try to keep all the blocks in its own playground. It's no small secret that the late Apple visionary Steve Jobs had vowed publicly to destroy Android with "his last dying breath."
Despite the verdict (which is likely to be decreased on appeal), on many fronts it can be seen as a tenuous claim, and it had already been shot down in the UK court. Like automobiles, smartphones and tablets are going to have some similarities. GM doesn't sue Ford because they both have round steering wheels. And, don't forget where the Apple design came from in the first place—Steve Jobs took it from Xerox PARC.
It's not likely that Apple is going to kill off Google Android, or any of the companies that produce smartphones on that architecture, no matter how hard they may try. What they will succeed in doing though, is forcing Google to revamp the so-called "trade dress," or the look and feel of the product. And ultimately, that's not a bad thing for the marketplace, because it will introduce more variation, more choice, and more innovation. It won't fulfill Mr Jobs' wish of killing it off—it will however, likely have the opposite effect of making Android even better than it already is. In the end, it may just come back to take a substantial bite out of the Apple. For those who follow stock prices, yes, this is going to cause some short-term damage to Google, Samsung, and any other manufacturer of Android-based phones, and may even result in a shakeout of the industry. But those who are able to suffer through it and emerge with a better product that passes the "look and feel" smell test will be the big winners.