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Apple victory over Samsung isn't (just) about looks

Ahn Young-Joon / AP

Samsung's Galaxy S III, right, and Apple's iPhone 4S are displayed at a mobile phone shop in Seoul, South Korea, Friday. After a year of scorched-earth litigation, a U.S. jury decided Friday that Samsung ripped off the innovative technology used by Apple to create its revolutionary iPhone and iPad.

Yes, you can patent the cool factor. That was the message of the nine-member jury that took just three days to reach a verdict in the landmark Apple-Samsung patent infringement battle.

After a three-week trial, the jury concluded Friday that Samsung had willfully violated Apple patents, copying the look and feel of the massively popular iPhone and iPad in its own smartphone and Tablet devices. Samsung came up empty in its cross-claims against Apple and was ordered to pay $1.05 billion in damages.

Although Samsung suggested it would appeal, saying the jury ruling was "not the final word in this case," Samsung devices could be pulled from the U.S. market soon as Apple said it will seek an injunction at a Sept. 20 hearing. The decision was a blow to Google, whose Android operating system powers Samsung's devices, which generally sell at a discount to comparable Apple products.

Apple's late CEO Steve Jobs had threatened to go "thermonuclear" on Google over its perceived theft of Apple's intellectual property, according to Job's biographer, and new CEO Tim Cook has continued to aggressively press the legal battle around the world.

The federal court jury agreed with Apple's claims that not only was it able to protect the distinctive design of its products but also technology such as the ability of users to "pinch-and-zoom" to manipulate images using two or more fingers on device touchscreens.

Intellectual property experts said the decision will push smartphone and tablet manufacturers to come up with new ideas — and patent them all.

"Every single technology company in the world will be filing every single design patent known to man," said Kevin G. Rivette, managing partner at 3LP Advisors.

Related: Jury sides with Apple, orders Samsung to pay $1 billion

While the decision will almost certainly be appealed, it also sets a precedent. It is a shot across the bow that other device manufacturers can’t afford to ignore.

Apple had a less favorable outcome in Samsung's home country of South Korea, where a three-judge panel ruled earlier Friday that both companies had infringed on each other and halted sales of products made by Apple as well as Samsung.

Apple was widely favored to come out on top in the case decided today, partly because the court’s Silicon Valley location is friendly territory for the Cupertino-based company, and also because of the disparity between the way the two sides presented their arguments.

As the plaintiff, it was in Apple’s best interest to make its message easy to digest. For a company that built its brand on making technology simple and pleasant to interact with, this was a natural. Samsung had the burden of wading into more complex territory and hoping jurors would follow along.

That Apple carried the day indicates that its streamlined message resonated more strongly, because patent experts say that design patent infringement, for which Apple was seeking the largest damages, is hard to prove. These patents focus on form over function: how something looks as opposed to what it does.

Apple took the bold and risky tack of arguing that the way its devices look and feel is an integral part of how people use them. Other smartphone and tablet makers now have to find ways to create devices that don’t resemble the iPhone — no easy feat, given that Apple more or less created the idea in people’s minds of what a smartphone should look like when it debuted the iPhone five years ago.

"It will force innovation," Rivette said, a circumstance that might cause some heartburn for smartphone and tablet manufacturers but will ultimately benefit consumers. 

CNBC's Jon Fortt reports from outside the courtroom following the jury's verdict. Apple was awarded more than $1 billion and had many of its patents upheld.

Aside from Apple, the jury's decision creates a few other unlikely winners, including Microsoft, for one. Analysts have said for months that Microsoft must convince consumers that Windows 8 offers a relevant alternative to iOS and Android. The sudden interest in devices that don’t behave like iPhones and iPads coincides almost perfectly with the platform’s debut.

Rivette said the verdict will invigorate technology patent wars, which means companies like Google — which has been in Apple’s crosshairs before and almost certainly will be again — will be scrambling for ammunition. Former tech heavyweights Research in Motion and Eastman Kodak both have vast patent portfolios that suddenly look like a good investment in light of the $1 billion award for damages.

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