Apple's iPhone and iPad compete fiercely with Samsung's Galaxy S smartphones and Galaxy Tab tablet for mobile market share. Yet the two are also co-dependent, with Apple a major purchaser of components from Samsung, which is only too happy to cash the checks. However, a burst of lawsuits threatens to permanently alter that relationship.
Samsung filed patent-infringement lawsuits against Apple in South Korea, Japan and Germany April 21. "Samsung is responding actively to the legal action taken against us in order to protect our intellectual property," read an April 22 statement posted on a Samsung Website, "and to ensure our continued innovation and growth in the mobile communications business."
Samsung is responding to Apple's patent-infringement case filed against it by Apple in the U.S. District Court of Northern California. The 38-page suit details Apple's allegation that the look, packaging and user interface of Samsung's smartphones and tablets closely copy the Apple iPhone and iPad.
"Rather than innovate and develop its own technology and a unique Samsung style for its smartphone products and computer tablets, Samsung chose to copy Apple's technology, user interface and innovative style in these infringing products," Apple wrote in its suit.
Apple also has patent-infringement suits against Nokia, HTC and Motorola. But the Samsung lawsuit (and countersuit) offers something of a curve ball, considering that Apple is a major customer of Samsung parts, including microchips and memory chips.
According to regulatory filings, Apple was responsible for roughly $6 billion-that's 4 percent-of Samsung's 2010 revenue. In addition, the tech site AnandTech reported April 15 that some Apple MacBook Air models run SSDs (solid-state drives) manufactured by Samsung.
That might be why Apple COO Tim Cook, during his company's April 20 earnings call, offered a more moderated response than you might think to the prospect of a long legal war.
"I expect the relationship to continue," he told media and analysts listening to the call, while adding: "We felt the mobile division of Samsung had crossed the line ... after trying for some time to work the issue, we decided to rely on the courts."
Companies using patent-infringement cases as leverage against their rivals is nothing new, of course. Microsoft has fired several intellectual-property lawsuits related to Google Android, aiming them at everyone from Barnes & Noble (makers of the Android-based Nook e-reader) to Motorola.
"The Android platform infringes a number of Microsoft's patents, and companies manufacturing and shipping Android devices must respect our intellectual-property rights," Horacio Gutierrez, Microsoft's corporate vice president and deputy general counsel for intellectual property and licensing, wrote in a March 21 statement accompanying news of the Barnes & Noble lawsuit. "To facilitate that, we have established an industry-wide patent licensing program for Android device manufacturers."
Microsoft has also managed to position Android-device manufacturers such as HTC into intellectual-property agreements, which presumably results in payments to Microsoft. Those agreements could also give Microsoft a way to keep a closer eye on the developing Android platform at a time when the company is trying to push its own Windows Phone 7 to consumers and businesses.
Apple's lawsuit against Samsung is a little different, however, in that it accuses Samsung of copying its "style," as opposed to merely infringing on technological patents. Given the relationship between the two companies, what would otherwise be an outright battle could more resemble a delicate dance.