Samsung’s product chief dumbs down litigation with Apple to rectangles

Wired sat down with Apple’s Jony Ive to talk design ahead of the trial of the century which kicked off in northern California today and the publication is now extending the courtesy to Samsung, interviewing its product person to hear the other side.

Samsung’s Kevin Packingham discussed patent and design accusations between his company and Apple, the result of which is bound to have serious ramifications for both parties. Unsurprisingly, the executive played down Apple’s concerns that the Galaxy tablets and smartphones copy the iPhone and iPad slavishly, pointing out there’s really just one way to go about the candy bar form factor…

Nathan Olivarez-Giles interviewed Samsung’s product chief Kevin Packingham for Wired. One of the most striking answers he gave shed light on the complicated Apple-Samsung relationship.

Even though the two companies are fighting fiercly for supremacy both in the fast-growing smartphone market and in the courtroom, Apple is also Samsung’s #1 buyer of components, often prepaying billions to secure multi-year supply of mobile displays, processors and NAND flash chips at prices no other buyer can match.

Asked how Samsung reconciles being both a business partner and a litigant, he responded cleverly:

The two parts of the company, they’re extremely isolated. There are times when I’m absolutely appalled that we sell what I consider to be the most innovative, most secret parts of the sauce of our products to some other manufacturer — HTC, LG, Apple, anybody.

And they [the components groups] are like, ‘Look, that’s none of your business. You go make your mobile phones and if you’d like to use our components, that’d be great.’ But you know, we also use Qualcomm components, and we source from other component manufacturers as well.

He’s right about Samsung’s mobile and components arms being two separate entities that don’t give each other preferential treatment. In addition to being the world’s leading smartphone and cell phone vendor, Samsung is also the world’s biggest maker of television sets and second-largest semiconductor manufacturer, right after Intel.

As for its legal fight with Apple over the look and feel of the iPhone:

In terms of patents, we have a made lot of contributions in the design space as well. I would say the patents we’re struggling with — where there’s a lot of discussion and litigation right now — are around these very broad design patents like a rectangle.

For us, it’s unreasonable that we’re fighting over rectangles, that that’s being considered as an infringement, which is why we’re defending ourselves.

The fighting-over-rectangles bit is sure to generate some nice headlines on Twitter.

The jury will get to see this, however.

Samsung, of course, has an infographic of its own.

He also shared this:

Hopefully the entire industry is in the position now where we have to defend ourselves and say, “Look, it’s unreasonable for us to be in the position of claiming that there is design, claiming that there is some sort of protected property, around a rectangle.”

So I would say, yeah, we have design patents as well, but they’re not as simple as the rectangle. And so that’s where I think you see a little bit of this challenge.

The industry at large is asking the same ‘rectangle’ question, the executive asserted:

In some cases, for most of us in the industry, it’s defying common sense. We’re all scratching our heads and saying, “How is this possible that we’re actually having an industry-level debate and trying to stifle competition?”

Consumers want rectangles and we’re fighting over whether you can deliver a product in the shape of a rectangle.

I don’t think Apple’s patent infringement is as trivial as Packingham would have us believe, especially in that it boils down to the question of the candybar form factor.

Maybe he was just concerned about pre-trial set backs as his company won’t get to show off a Sony-inspired iPhone prototype to weaken Apple’s case. And news that Samsung wanted to subpoena a former Sony designer (who created said prototype) to testify in the case by sending him a $60 check also doesn’t bode well for the company.

After all, if it loses this patent trial of the century, as Fortune’s Philip Elmer-DeWitt put it, Samsung is quite possibly facing billions in damages and a mega-sales ban on its Galaxy smartphones and tablets for the entire United States, the world’s largest market for mobile devices.

Let’s see how the trial goes.

I’m sure we’ll be seeing lots of ups and downs in this litigation.