Apple won the battle over headphone jacks. But Samsung is winning the smartphone design war.

August 10, 2013

(Dado Ruvic / REUTERS)

The war between Apple and Samsung spans so many fronts, in so many different countries, that it's sometimes hard to tell who's on top.

Take a U.S. International Trade Commission finding Friday that Samsung cellphones violated two Apple patents. Reports have been quick to label the decision a victory for Apple — especially in light of a recent intervention by the Obama administration overturning a ban on iPhone imports, also in connection with another (but different!) patent dispute. But while Apple may have won this particular legal encounter, Samsung is still in a stronger position to win the broader war for dominance of the smartphone market.

As part of Friday's ruling, the International Trade Commission is expected to issue a ban on imports of Samsung phones as a penalty for the infringement:

Some Samsung devices infringe two Apple patents for multitouch features and headphone jack detection, while newer devices work around those patents, the U.S. International Trade Commission said in a notice posted on its website yesterday. The trade agency cleared Samsung of infringing patents for the design of the iPhone.

While Apple won out on a couple of specific patents, however, Samsung is already moving ahead with phones and tablets that don't incorporate them, the ITC said. These devices therefore probably won't be affected by an ITC import ban — which would help cushion the blow for Samsung. The company's Galaxy S4 smartphone has sold more than 20 million units since May. That's 70 percent better than its older sibling, the Galaxy S3, had been selling at the same point in its life cycle, according to CNET.

The ITC also ruled in Samsung's favor over a long-running dispute about the look of both companies' hardware. Apple has been pointing out forever out how Samsung seemingly copied the rounded corners and rectangular screen of the iPhone. Never mind that most objects generally, you know, have edges, rounded or not, and that electronics generally need some way to display information in order to be useful. Samsung was found not to have done anything wrong in putting rounded edges and rectangular screens on its products, a ruling that will have longer-lasting repercussions than the ruling over how to build headphone jacks.

Look at it this way: the whole smartphone industry depends on making nice-looking rectangular things. How well Samsung can adapt to a U.S. import ban will depend on the scope of the ban and the company's stock of newer devices. But the fact that Samsung is already beginning to move in a different direction means that Apple must soon look to open up another front.

Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post.
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Brian Fung · August 9, 2013