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Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL ) and Samsung Electronics have a heck of a love-hate relationship going.
Je t'aime ... moi non plus
Samsung makes chips for Apple's iPhones, iPods, and iPads, and that includes playing the manufacturer to Apple's in-house ARM Holdings (Nasdaq: ARMH ) designs. So there's a fruitful relationship there.
On the other hand, the two technology titans from opposite ends of the globe also compete head-to-head in the consumer market. Samsung sells its own music players, smartphones, tablets, and computer systems (this article was written on a Samsung laptop, for example). So sparks and lawsuits fly when the left hand seems to know too much about what the right hand has touched.
Last month, Apple asked for a court order to make Samsung share its upcoming smartphone and tablet plans. Apple contends that the Koreans are copying concepts from Apple's playbook, and it would very much like to see that bad habit stopped. "Instead of pursuing independent product development," the original suit contends, "Samsung has chosen to slavishly copy Apple's innovative technology, distinctive user interfaces, and elegant and distinctive product and packaging design."
So Samsung has turned the tables: The same court is now pondering whether Apple would need to send its own iPhone 5 and iPad 3 plans to Samsung's lawyers for review. Mind you, both Apple and Samsung promise to limit these reviews to their respective legal teams with no involvement by management or engineering staff. Keep it kosher; keep it clean.
According to Samsung, that's necessary in order to draw up a defense against Apple's legal attacks. Maybe the Koreans want to delay the iPhone 5's release by stretching this case as far and wide as it can go, or perhaps the company really just wants to be able to vet future designs against Apple's blueprints just to make sure there isn't any reason for further lawyering.
Perfect storm or storm in a teacup?
I'm no lawyer, but this case seems like a potential turning point in the history of mobile computing. If Apple can force Samsung to stop selling iPad and iPhone lookalikes such as the Galaxy Tab slate and the Galaxy series of Android phones, then what would stop Apple from doing the same thing to Motorola Mobility (NYSE: MMI ) , HTC, and Nokia (NYSE: NOK ) ?
Depending on just how loosely Apple defines its inventions, it'd be hard to imagine a competing smartphone or tablet of any kind for years to come.
Then again, that doesn't seem terribly likely. Tablets have been around for ages, though they were running bog-standard desktop versions of Windows rather than a purpose-built mobile software package. Likewise, both Research In Motion (Nasdaq: RIMM ) and the pre-Hewlett-Packard (NYSE: HPQ ) Palm guys might contest the idea that the iPhone was an entirely new idea.
I'd argue that Apple simply perfected the design of an existing idea, with most of the innovation going into marketing the whole package. But like I said, I'm not a lawyer. Where I see prior art, I'm sure a skilled litigator could point out critical differences to make me eat those words. That's why they get paid the big bucks and I don't.
Will the Samsung case establish a de facto Apple monopoly on smartphones, or is it much ado about nothing? Add the combatants to your Foolish watchlist in order to keep a closer eye on how everything works out. And feel free to enlighten us all in the comments below if you know better -- perhaps you are a lawyer?