Are Mobile Phone Brands Really Copying iPhones?

In the last few months most of you would have read the endless press about Apple’s multiple lawsuits filed against their competitors claiming that they are stealing their intellectual property. Not only that, countless of other websites/blogs etc. have been jumping into the fray by putting up comparison images of how competitors like Samsung or LG have been blatantly copying Apple’s design language.
But are Apple’s worries justified and are mobile phone brands really copying iPhones? My short answer to this question is actually no.
Before we go on, lets take a look at the evolutionary history of the iPhone? I have taken the liberty to compile the iPhone’s design history into a convenient graphic below.

Click on the graphic for a larger view.
As you can see the iPhone was launched on 29 June 2007, with a new design or iteration almost every year. (By the way, from this graphic you can almost guess that the iPhone 5 will be announced within the next month or year.) However the main take away from this graphic is that it has been almost 4 years since the original iPhone was launched. (Edit: Another thing to note is that the UI/UX is more or less the same over 4 generations.)
Now lets take a look at the latest smart phones the other mobile phone brands are launching.

Click on the graphic for a larger view.
Check out Nokia’s N9 developed with Intel. This product is touted as an interim gap filler before their first Windows 7 phones come out. Hmm that interface looks familiar…

Sony Ericsson new Xperia Active targeted at the Sporty and designed to reflect those typical consumer requirements.

Finally we have Samsung’s second incarnation of the Galaxy range and one of the targets of Apple’s lawsuits.

I’m sure there are a few more that I have missed, but these 3 will do for now. So, after looking at the above suspects, are we now saying that the entire mobile industry is copying the iPhone’s industrial design as well as the user interface design?
To answer this question, lets go back 4.5 years ago and take a snap shot of the mobile phone industry before the iPhone was launched.
If you recall, the smart phone archetype was at its infancy, and the mobile phone industry was filled with many different configurations. There was Blackberry’s screen and tick tack keyboard, Nokia’s clam shell/hot dog bun communicator, HTC’s sliding cosmetic compact, and Motorola’s Razr biscuit. (Well the latter is not really what we would define a smart phone, but I just threw it in the mix for variety!)
Then the iPhone was revealed and the world was divided. The faithful call it the “Jesus Phone” and the other half of the world ridiculed its lack of buttons, last generation mobile technology, crappy battery/camera/reception and most struggled with fat fingers getting in the way.
Fast-forward 4 years later to today, the immense success of the iPhone has not only transformed the mobile industry, it has cemented the archetype of the smart phone. The now ubiquitous iPhone means that the consumer is very familiar and comfortable with a device that is essentially a screen and a few buttons (for home, volume and perhaps a camera etc.). We are as used to and comfortable with the iPhone, as much as we are used to cars with 4 wheels and wristwatches with straps.
Edit: As one of Design Sojourn’s readers rightly pointed out, the user interface and the experience on the iPhone was nothing short of unique and spectacular. It redefined how people engaged with their products. In the past, all people wanted was the precision of styluses, but Apple made touching, multi-touching, gesturing, and sliding etc. all common place. This is something by which people have come to expect or even demand from a device which is predominantly made up of a screen.
And that’s why I hate mobile phone design. Given the constraints you have to work with, the business requirements and what people are familiar with, most of the design work tends to produce very similar looking phones. Though some brands (who will not be named here) could choose to use less Apple inspired design details. (Edit: To clarify, when I say design here I mean both industrial design and user interface design.)
There is another angle to this discussion.
From the look of things, it would make more sense for Apple to drop their lawsuits and channel the legal costs into product development. The reality is that Apple’s success has been due to its ability to create new market leading and innovative propositions unlike any other. What we are seeing now though, is that it has been 4 years since the iPhone bandwagon as started rolling and the rest of the world has caught up.
That being said, I hope the iPhone 5 will really be something special, but I’m not holding my breath. Just like going from 3G to 3GS, the iPhone 5 may only be an evolution, which means the iPhone 6 should be the revolution. As my iPhone 4 is looking mighty tired next to my friend’s HTC Inspire, waiting for iPhone 6 might just be too late.

Image via Smart Phone Envy

  • Richard

    July 26, 2011 at 4:28 pm Reply

    This is an industry of pirates from Bill Gates to Mark Zuckerberg. Lots of copying, cheating and outright piracy. Is this any different?

  • Cathy

    July 19, 2011 at 4:31 pm Reply

    Apple is paying Nokia, nuff said.

  • Steve

    July 5, 2011 at 4:05 am Reply

    People will never know that iPhone was also considered a “copy cat” of the LG Prada phone when it was first launched. The design language, look and feel of the iPhone looks a lot similar to the Prada phone which seems why LG is not in one of Apple’s lawsuits.

  • khaled

    July 4, 2011 at 6:51 pm Reply

    I think any brand that has a revolutionary product is going to be copied, because it sets the expectations for what customers want. People like the way the iphone works which is why so many other brands have tried to imitate its design and improve on certain aspects of the technology. Flash forward 4 years and iphone functionality in an android powered phone has a bigger market share in the US than the iphone. So in losing a lot of money to iphone copies which are now better then the iphone you can kind of see why the company feels it should be compensated.

  • Paul Mckay

    July 1, 2011 at 9:18 pm Reply

    Mobile companies are doing exactly what designers do. We see designs that are better than are own and take a huge amount of “inspiration” from it. In this case the i-phone is leading in the mobile industry so naturally it’s competitors are going to analyse and copy certain aspects in order to compete within the market. As long as Apple’s competitors don’t copy the i-phone directly then I can’t see the problem. We’re in a world where technology is advancing at an exponential rate. Where’s the harm in pushing each other in order to make something better and in turn benefit from it? Apple should be proud to have companies wanting to produce a phone that’s like the i-phone.

  • Brian

    July 1, 2011 at 11:25 am Reply

    Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts, especially about Windows 7, which btw I fully agree with you. I’m looking forward to the Nokia / Microsoft phones as well.
    But back to your comment.
    Perhaps I did not make it explicitly clear in my article, but when I spoke about the design of the iPhone, I meant both industrial design and user interface/interaction design. Perhaps my discussion on smart phone archetypes threw it off. I’ll go back and clarify.
    Regardless, the problem still remains, 4 years running on an OS and GUI which is more or less the same, means the competition has caught up.

  • Charlie

    July 1, 2011 at 1:25 am Reply

    What I think you’re missing in this article is a deeper analysis of cell phone software, which is the driving force for much of the hardware/design decisions in current phones. The iPhone’s software was the reason for its initial success. Apple did not introduce the first phone with a touch screen or stylish design. They introduced the first phone with a user interface (software) that pushed the boundaries of what a mobile phone could do and it caught the whole industry off guard. Downloadable 3rd party apps through the App Store allowed the iPhone to become a seriously multifaceted device.
    The original iPhone has been the only iPhone to be truly revolution. The following three iterations and their corresponding software updates, while aesthetically pleasing, have remained mostly unchanged in functionality since the original phone’s debut.
    If you want an indication (not the answer) of the future of mobile devices, you need to look at Windows Phone 7. It has presented the most radical approach to smart phone software since the iPhone’s introduction. As opposed to the iPhone which relies on individual apps to run particular tasks, WP7 uses centralized apps which pull data from numerous sources, a process known as mashup- Essentially, one app can provide the functionality and information of conventional numerous apps. WP7 is merely the tip of this iceberg. It is pointing in the direction for the future of user interface design which will ultimately dictates hardware design for phones. (barring new technology from the hardware side)

  • Cameron

    July 1, 2011 at 12:52 am Reply

    Best Buy recently published a marketing image billed as an iPad dock but it was really an HP touchpad.
    The world needs more Nokia N9s (in terms of hardware design) and less Samsung ‘clones.’

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