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Samsung didn’t copy Apple’s greatest feature

Samsung and Apple are making lawyers rich again. The latest trial tests if Samsung used Apple patents in phones and tablets.

Did Samsung copy Apple’s ideas? We’ll leave that for the courts to decide.

What Samsung didn’t copy is Apple’s — perhaps Steve Jobs’ — greatest idea: knowing what to leave out.

Radical simplicity

Apple’s iPhone took Blackberry’s smartphone crown and crushed the former leader into the ground by building a simpler product.

Although Blackberry’s tiny hardware qwerty keyboard looked like a killer feature — and clearly was important to many users — Apple realised most people don’t use smartphones that way. 

Taking away a feature meant a better screen and a bigger market. Apple knew what to leave out. 

Ultimately Apple’s market was so much bigger as its sales crushed Blackberry.

Likewise Apple’s first iPad beat Microsoft’s earlier tablets by doing away with the hardware keyboard. Leaving out the keyboard cut weight, cost and complexity.

Apple didn’t just leave out hardware components, it made a fetish of reducing software user complexity.

Complicated Galaxy S

Samsung makes good phones. At times it makes great phones.  While you can argue there are better Android phones, Samsung’s devices are second only to Apple in popularity.

Some phone companies lend their devices to reviewers for extended periods. When I tested the Samsung Galaxy S4 and S5 models I only had a limited amount of time. My usual approach involves running through the special features, then attempting to use the review device as an everyday phone to get a feel for how it works in practice.

When it came to the Galaxy S4, there was barely enough time to find and test all the software apps bundled with the device. It was that complex.

This approach reminds me of the Giant Games Compendiums that would turn up in our house when I was a child. They would boast dozens of games, a handful were classics, some would be interesting for a few minutes, most were dross. Some simply didn’t deliver on their promise. Spending the money on a decent chess or draughts set would be better value.

Why this matters

Much of the software in the Galaxy S4 failed to deliver on its promise in pure Giant Games Compendium style. I remember translation software that failed embarrassingly and photo tools that fell at the first hurdle. 

Until I read of other reviewers finding similar problems, I thought it was just that I’m too dumb to ‘get’ Samsung’s software.

None of this bothers many Samsung owners who are perfectly happy with the phones. That many choose to move from one Samsung product to another underlines this. I’m glad they are happy. Samsung gets many things right.

And yet, it’s not productive. Or sensible. And the company doesn’t know what to leave out. 

Not just iPhone

Now before you label me an Apple fan boy, let’s get a few things straight. I do use an iPhone as my main day-to-day device, but my comments apply equally to Windows Phone 8

Nokia or Microsoft or both have learnt what to leave out of a smartphone. Likewise some of the simpler Androids. I’ve got a Moto X on my desk now that also rocks the same radical simplicity vibe.

Of course many of you reading this will love the Samsung approach. I’m sure there are people who purchased the phones because, not despite, the shovelware. That’s OK. No-one is judging you here. If it works for you that is good. 

But with age and wisdom I’ve moved beyond adding clutter to my life. I like relatively empty work rooms and desks. I prefer having space to think, fewer distractions and less wading through treacle when I want to get stuff done. 

Apple learned long ago, Microsoft learned more recently, Google got there, other Android phone makers are getting there. Less is more.