Thanks for posting this. The people who were up in arms about Apple patenting rounded rectangles didn't seem to understand what a design patent is. I like the way you put it -- the rounded rectangles were indeed a significant aesthetic element that said "this phone is an iPhone."
I agree with everything you say up to the part "...making design arounds easier". One of the amazing things I learned from studying Apple's design patent strategy is that design patents can be quite hard to design around if you focus on the essential aesthetic elements. Those become solid lines in the design patent. Everything else is shown as a broken line. You only need to match the solid lines to have infringement.
Many people were very upset when it appeared that Apple patented the "rounded edge rectangle", but that turned out to be the essential design element that said "this phone is an iPhone". When Samsung mimicked that design element too closely to say "yeah, we are just like an iPhone too", they got burned even though parts of their phone design (the back) were different.
You are quite right that the interest level has risen for design patents lately. Design patents are appealing because they don't require sophisticated reverse engineering as they are visual, but have a shorter life span than utility patents and are limited to the non-functional aspects of products (i.e. the design itself)--making design-arounds easier.
As we unveil EE Times’ 2015 Silicon 60 list, journalist & Silicon 60 researcher Peter Clarke hosts a conversation on startups in the electronics industry. Panelists Dan Armbrust (investment firm Silicon Catalyst), Andrew Kau (venture capital firm Walden International), and Stan Boland (successful serial entrepreneur, former CEO of Neul, Icera) join in the live debate.