SAN JOSE – A 17-year veteran of Apple’s small but powerful industrial design team provided a glimpse of the design process at Apple in the first testimony of the company’s patent infringement case against Samsung.
Apple attempted to use the testimony to evoke the ethos of Apple’s painstaking dedication to original design. However, under cross-examination Samsung’s attorney made clear Apple closely follows competing products.
Christopher Stringer appeared in court in a white cotton suit and well-worn cowboy boots. His shoulder length hair and full beard were streaked with grey. Lean and tanned, he resembled a 40-something Jesus with an Australian accent.
“I’ve worked on every Apple product since I joined in 1995,” Stringer said. “I can say that because we work as a team and take that very seriously, dedicating time every week so we all get together and talk about every project we are working on,” he said.
Stringer is named in many of Apple’s patents, as are most of the roughly 16 people in Apple’s industrial design team run by Jonathan Ive to whom Stringer reports.
“We work together around a kitchen table,” Stringer explained. “It’s a culturally diverse group with members from Australia, Japan, Britain, Germany, Austria--and we’ve been together a very long time, many of us for 15 years, so it’s a very familiar small environment which is remarkable for a company the size of Apple,” he said.
Nevertheless the group is a powerful one. Stringer repeatedly said the group can make design decisions without concern for the manufacturing difficulties or costs they may entail.
“We link directly to the highest levels of Apple and are involved in all the products Apple ships,” he said.
While the “kitchen table” meeting area of the group sounds cozy, it is not always a comfortable place to be.
“It’s a brutally honest debate [there], that’s where all the ideas happen,” Stronger said. “We sketch and trade ideas and go back and forth--that’s where the brutal criticism comes in,” he said.
Once the group settles on sketches it likes, it takes them to a separate team of CAD specialists that creates computer and 3-D models of them as subjects for further brainstorming and debate. Sometimes the models “might be just a little corner of a product,” he said.
“We will even sketch on models or use a sketch from a different design session, [the process] weaves and knits [ideas] until we think we have something really special,” Stringer said. “We’re a pretty maniacal group of people, we obsess on details, every single detail is very carefully crafted,” he said.
“The process is not linear,” he added. “It doesn’t go from thought to sketch to model to production—we can jump straight back to idea stage if a better idea is created,” he added.
Indeed, Apple’s lead attorney, Harold McElhinny, showed how what became the industrial design for the original iPhone was one of dozens of models designers had created, rejected and then later returned to re-evaluate. The final form factor was set as early as the spring of 2006, according to the dates on Apple’s CAD files.
Among the many models created was a “extruded lozenge” form factor Samsung alluded to in its opening statement. Samsung alleged Apple changed from that square-edged model to a more round-edge version after an Apple designer saw a Sony phone he admired.
Apple claims one of the patents Samsung infringed was a patent on the rectangular shape with rounded edges of the original iPhone. In selecting that design from the many other models Apple designers realized “it was the most beautiful of our designs--we sometimes don’t recognize it [at first] but we finally realized it,” Stringer said.
Interestingly, Apple was working on tablet concepts with multi-touch screens before it came up with the idea of the iPhone, Stringer said. The iPad “was a long project, we tried so many things,” he said.
Apple showed early models of iPad designs including some reminiscent of Grecian columns with sharp square outlines and curled edges. The company also considered similar industrial designs for the iPhone and iPad.
In the end, “we decided the [iPad] deserved its own identity, we couldn’t copy ourselves,” said Stringer. “It wasn’t like a consumer electronics product at all--it didn’t feel like a device, it felt like a new object,” he said.
The most interesting part of the story is Apple actually comes up idea of iPad first. The rest of the product, iPod Touch, iPhone are just part of the roadmap to the ultimate goal. If nothing comes out good from the allegation, this part of story tells us more of how Apple foresaw the consumer demands. What's the next goal that Apple is trying to achieve?
You hit the nail on the head. People can laugh at things like rounded corners being patentable, but the truth is that Apple's industrial designs are innovative and unique, and that is precisely what Apple was attempting to cover in some of these patents.
How can you put into words the look and feel, the simplicity and elegence, without the words sounding silly?
We all give Steve Jobs credits creating a phone he wants to use - revolutionizing the usage paradigm. But iPhone was not born out of Apple's own technologies. All the components were there for Apple to use which in fact means technologies were existed way before Apple thought about creating iPhone. Using lego blocks, our kids can create some shapes you never imagined. I give credits to this kid to create something no one ever imagined but also give credits to lego who enable this kid to be creative using their technology.
Stay tuned. Friday Apple's marketing VP Phil Schiller will describe how the iPhone came into being and he will be followed at some point by Scott Forstall who oversees iOS development.
No doubt some wonderful Samsung execs and designers will make an appearance as well.
Many shoes yet to fall.
And I am open to questions I should explore while sitting there for you, so fire away!
David Patterson, known for his pioneering research that led to RAID, clusters and more, is part of a team at UC Berkeley that recently made its RISC-V processor architecture an open source hardware offering. We talk with Patterson and one of his colleagues behind the effort about the opportunities they see, what new kinds of designs they hope to enable and what it means for today’s commercial processor giants such as Intel, ARM and Imagination Technologies.