Apple 2.0

Covering the business that Steve Jobs built

The Sony device Samsung claims inspired Apple's iPhone

August 1, 2012: 7:59 AM ET

Judge for yourself: Does this look like something Jony Ive might have copied?

Sony Walkman NW-A1200

FORTUNE -- The biggest drama on the first full day of Apple v. Samsung -- the high-stakes patent infringement case being played out in a packed San Jose federal courthouse -- was the release to the press of information Samsung's lead attorney had literally begged the judge to allow into evidence.  ("What's the point of having a trial?" he said in open court when his umpteenth motion was denied.)

The leak infuriated judge Lucy Koh -- to the delight of the reporters in the courtroom and, presumably, Apple's (AAPL) legal team.

The story Samsung was trying to tell the jury was that before it unveiled the first iPhone, Apple was pursuing a design inspired by Sony's (SE) aesthetic  -- a line of reasoning that has been transformed in hot fires of the blogosphere into proof that Apple "copied" Sony's design.

The evidence was barred on a variety procedural grounds. But as John Gruber deftly showed in a Daring Fireball post Tuesday, it should have been barred because it's totally bogus.

Here's the iPhone creation story Samsung wanted to tell (taken from an unredacted Samsung legal brief):

Right after this article was circulated internally, Apple industrial designer Shin Nishibori was directed to prepare a "Sony-like" design for an Apple phone and then had CAD drawings and a three-dimensional model prepared. Confirming the origin of the design, these internal Apple CAD drawings prepared at Mr. Nishibori's direction even had the "Sony" name prominently emblazoned on the phone design, as the below images from Apple's internal documents show:

Soon afterward, on March 8, 2006, Apple designer Richard Howarth reported that, in contrast to another internal design that was then under consideration, Mr. Nishibori's "Sony-style" design enabled "a much smaller-looking product with a much nicer shape to have next to your ear and in your pocket" and had greater "size and shape/comfort benefits." As Mr. Nishibori has confirmed in deposition testimony, this "Sony-style" design he prepared changed the course of the project that yielded the final iPhone design.

iPhone design, Aug. 2005

There are a lot of problems with that story, starting with the fact Noshibori's design (pictured above) didn't change the course of the iPhone project, and he never said it did. Apple has released sketches of a near-final iPhone design (see left) that pre-date his CAD drawings by almost a year.

But let's go back to the first sentence of the excerpt. The article that was circulated internally at Apple, Gruber helpfully points out, was a 2006 Businessweek interview with the designers of the product shown at the top of this piece. It was not a phone at all, but a Walkman -- the NW-A1200 -- that according to Businessweek represented for Sony a new, cleaner, less cluttered design aesthetic.

And what inspired that new aesthetic? Of all things, according to the Sony designers, an Apple iPod.

Apple wasn't copying Sony, dear bloggers. Sony was copying Apple.

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About This Author
Philip Elmer-Dewitt
Philip Elmer-DeWitt
Editor, Apple 2.0, Fortune

Philip Elmer-DeWitt has been following Apple since 1982, first for Time Magazine, and now on the Web for Fortune.com.

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