Charles BabcockEditor At Large, InformationWeek
Editor At Large, InformationWeek
Apple Vs. The Swiss Railways Patent
You can imagine my dismay, then, to learn that the Swiss Federal Railway informed Apple last month that the design of the clock face in the iOS 6 clock application running on the iPad bears "a remarkable similarity" to the wall clocks that occupy Swiss railway stations.
What on earth were they suggesting? That Apple copied their clock? You can't compare the intracacies of an iPhone, with its polished steel bezel, its Gorilla glass, its multi-gesture user interface, and its wondrously rich application choices, to a wall clock seen every day by travelers in a small and irrelevant European country.
Granted, the Swiss did not accuse Apple of "slavishly copying" their clock, although they probably suggested that the "ordinary observer" might find "substantial similarity" between the two. They also refrained from accusing Apple of "ripping off" the national railroad's design ideas. But unfortunately for Apple, the Schweizerische Bundesbahnen (railroad) had taken pains to trademark and copywrite its clock design. There were some minor differences, but those differences might not have stood up to review if the railroad went to court.
I've been in Swiss train stations and find very little that Apple is likely to want to borrow in the way of design ideas. But I have to concede, when placed side by side, Apple's hash marks around the perimeter and the red second hand in the iOS 6 clock application do look a lot like the Swiss clock. The giveaway is the circular pointer, a big, floating, red dot at the end of the second hand. It suggests some sort of railroad signal. Maybe that's why the Swiss adopted it for use in its train station time keepers.
If you shrink that clock face down to the size of an icon, the simplicity of the design still stands out. I believe Apple would only use someone else's design because so many people are trying to steal its intellectual property. When you use a distinctive design like the Swiss clock face, it makes it easier to point out to a jury that somebody is ripping off your design. That's probably why Apple copied the Swiss.
Wait, I didn't mean to say that. Samsung copies, Apple doesn't. Apple's not been convicted of anything by a jury, even if a clever Swiss attorney could make up a color graphic that makes the two clock faces look exactly the same.
The dimensions of my dismay were raised further earlier this week when Apple went ahead and settled for a secret amount with the Swiss rail corporation. Think of it. Apple's future R&D has been diminished by a nation of outmoded, cottage-bound watch repairers who have never been to California. Do the Swiss really think they invented the clock face? They certainly did not.