Nicking the notch

I got myself a new phone today – the iPhone 6S. Before the purchase, I had spent hours on Amazon looking for the right phone within my budget, and quite possibly went through at least two score models. During this exercise, I noticed many phones on the market that had unabashedly copied the fullscreen design of the iPhone X and called it their own.

The hallmark of this design is the absence of any buttons on the phone’s UI, and the presence of a ‘notch’ – a black bar at the top that’s host to two cameras, a few sensors, the mic, etc. The design by itself isn’t very revolutionary but Apple’s decision to change the look of a phone that’s maintained one specific look for a decade is, to borrow Marco Arment’s verdict, courageous.

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However, I noticed at least five other brands – OnePlus, Vivo, Huawei, LG and Asus – with phones that sported the same notch (6, V9, P20, G7 and Zenfone 5 resp.). I’m sure there are many others nicking the notch, especially the China-based rapid prototypers like Xiaomi. (This article highlights a bunch.)

One reason they’re able to get away with this is because Apple doesn’t have a patent on the design. Additionally, while Apple designed the iPhone X’s screen thus to maximise display size, those who added the notch after did so to capitalise on the trend that was sure to follow.

Second, OEMs argue that there are only so many to maximise display size and that, if anything, Apple should also be criticised for considering edge-to-edge display after Samsung popularised the idea with its Edge+ model.

Evidently, the argument (or counterargument, depending on your POV) is that there is only a finite number of ways in which to combine UI elements to achieve certain UX goals. And at the other, minimal end of the interfacial spectrum is the question of what exactly it is that you’re patenting when all semblance of creative detail has been shaved off of your product.

This line of thinking brought an amusing anecdote to mind, involving the cult sci-fi classic 2001: A Space Odyssey, which celebrated its 50th anniversary last month. When Apple sued Samsung for allegedly copying the iPad’s design for the Galaxy tab, Samsung hit back in mid-2011 with a crazy defence: that Apple’s patent was null because the iPad’s design had been copied from devices depicted in the film.

Of course, the sitting judge dismissed Samsung’s argument: Apple may have been inspired by the design as depicted in the film but the idea of the tablet as a product as such was its own, and Samsung’s ‘defence’ didn’t address that. The iPhone X notch has a similar identity: according to Android phone-makers, it’s an inevitable design choice, and doesn’t represent any new ideas as such.