Apple is famous for crafting beautifully designed products, but it is a little condescending to start giving design advice to its competitors. Nevertheless, this is exactly what Apple has done in a legal brief filed with their earlier request for a ban on Samsung's devices in the United States (a request which was denied by a district judge a few days ago). The legal brief from Apple describes both what their U.S. design patents cover and what the patents do not cover. The latter is especially interesting as they are essentially guidelines on what Samsung can do to avoid being sued in the future.

In its defense, Samsung argues that the design choices for smartphones and tablets are limited, that is there are only so many ways a plastic slab can be shaped and there are only so many places you can put the buttons and bezels. Apple, to no one's surprise, disagrees and provides examples of design alternatives which Samsung could employ to distinguish its products.

The Verge has provided a cogent summary of some alternative design options described by Apple:

On the smartphone side of things, the following is a list of some of the alternative design options Apple felt Samsung should have looked into further:

  • Front surface that isn't black.
  • Overall shape that isn't rectangular, or doesn't have rounded corners.
  • Display screens that aren't centered on the front face and have substantial lateral borders.
  • Non-horizontal speaker slots.
  • Front surfaces with substantial adornment.
  • No front bezel at all.

As for tablets, Apple identified a similar list of alternative designs available to Samsung:

  • Overall shape that isn't rectangular, or doesn't have rounded corners.
  • Thick frames rather than a thin rim around the front surface.
  • Front surface that isn't entirely flat.
  • Profiles that aren't thin.
  • Cluttered appearance.

Naturally, Samsung did not go out and immediately start "cluttering up" all its devices, but Apple's brief is an invaluable tool and provides Samsung with ways in which to avoid patent litigation in the future.

Samsung has already tried to differentiate its Galaxy Tab 10.1N line in Germany by modifying the form-factor slightly and stating that the modification was made "to reflect Apple's claims". However, Apple was unimpressed by the token changes and sought an injunction against the newly modified Tab in Germany. I am unfamiliar with German law, but if the changes made to the Tab 10.1N are "design alternatives", as outlined by Apple in its brief, then Samsung may have a strong paper shield in its defense.

[Source: Apple's Reply, Apple's Expert Reply, and Samsung's Opposition via The Verge]