Analysis: Apple’s Unlocking Patents are Invalid or Should be Narrowed

Apple, Inc.’s (AAPL) victory over Google Inc.’s (GOOG)  new acquisition Motorola was a stinging blow to the Android phonemaker.  Ruled in German court this week, the decision has the possibility to ban all sales of at least two of Motorola’s phones in Germany. (Though a workaround from Motorola will prevent this from happening.)

But if you haven’t figured it out, Apple’s “slide to unlock” patents [1][2] should be invalidated or narrowed both in Europe and in the U.S.  

Setting aside, for a second, the matter of obviousness, here’s why they are invalid from the perspective of prior art (as noted by a Dutch judge in Apple’s pseudo-victory in the Netherlands).

I. The iPhone

Here we have the iPhone and its marvelous unlocking:

Here’s a quick picture, in case you don’t want to watch the video:

[Image Source: YouTube]
To unlock, you slide your finger from left to right (if the phone has blacked, click the home screen button).  Apple has received not one, but two patents on this in Europe and the U.S.  In the U.S. these patents are U.S. Patent No. 7,657,849 and U.S. Patent No. 8,046,721.

Basically the patents cover a left to right slide gesture and accompanying graphics on the iPhone.

II. The Neonode n1

Now meet the Neonode N1/N1m, by Neonode Inc. (NEON):

The Neonode n1 [Image Source: Engadget]
The device went on sale in July 2004 (the above photo was published on Sept. 2004).  Note the unlock activation button on the n1.

Now see this same feature in action demonstrated in 2007 on the slightly upgraded NeoNode n1m (skip to 4:00 if you don’t want to see the whole thing):

Here’s a quick picture, in case you don’t want to watch the video:

[Image Source: YouTube]
Now be aware that Neonode first developed this phone in 2002 (!), so this gesture had been around for several years before Apple ever considered filing for a patent.

III. A Bit Different?

The swipe gesture is essentially identical to Apple’s, with a few minor differences.  Let us be clear what these differences are:

1. The Neonode has no graphic that slides along with your finger.
2. The Neonode has a 3×3 diode grid (resistive touch) versus an interpolating capacitive touchscreen on the iPhone.
3. The Neonode track is not visible.
4. The positions of the “track” may vary slightly (it corresponds to the non-visible row of three diodes near the bottom of the screen on the n1).
5. Different services may be “locked” on the iPhone vs. the Neonode.

Stil the overall idea is the exact same.  As the previous video’s “trick” demonstrates, early versions of iPhone unlocking did not test that the slider had slid down the full track.  They merely checked for a touch at the start position, followed subsequently by an end position.  This is crucial as it makes difference #2 immaterial.  Essentially the iPhone’s detection algorithm is grid based, just like Neonode’s.  In fact it’s presumably cruder than Neonode’s as it is only a two-position test, versus a tri-position test on the n1.

Difference #5 seems trivial.  If you read Apple’s patent its invention claim is not so much the list of services locked — that is mentioned, but it is more of an afterthought.  The patent’s core claim (Claim 1) is:
1. A method of controlling an electronic device with a touch-sensitive display, comprising:

    detecting contact with the touch-sensitive display while the device is in a user-interface lock state;
    moving an unlock image along a predefined displayed path on the touch-sensitive display in accordance with the contact, wherein the unlock image is a graphical, interactive user-interface object with which a user interacts in order to unlock the device;
    transitioning the device to a user-interface unlock state if the detected contact corresponds to a predefined gesture; and
    maintaining the device in the user-interface lock state if the detected contact does not correspond to the predefined gesture.
Notice, the patent’s primary claims deal with the gesture, not finer points of its results.  This ambiguity would seem to work to Apple’s advantage here; if it was too specific with the results, it could limit the enforcement possibilities as the results application-wise of unlocking in Android are almost certain different than the results of unlocking in iOS.  But in reality, the ambiguity precludes difference #5 between the iPhone and the Neonode from being protected, as it was not covered.  And even if it had been, the narrower patent would likely no longer cover Android.

Difference #1, #3, and #4 are true differentiators between the iPhone and the n1.  

But hopefully we can all agree that a comment like DT reader “Commodus” is blatantly erroneous:
Apple patented a specific implementation. Notice the fixed track? Point X to point Y? Neonode’s wasn’t like that.
Neonode’s implementation was exactly like that.  It detected Point X (bottom left-most diode) then detected the motion to Point Y (bottom right-most diode).

IV. The Motorola Phone

Now to the final idea that the Apple patent is narrowly targeting a specific look.

If that is the case than the Motorola lock screen:

…should not be in violation.  It looks completely different.  

Here’s a quick picture, in case you don’t want to watch the video:

Note the lack of a visible track and no image under the finger (right).
[Image Source: YouTube]
The slider is in a different place, there is no graphic under your finger (once you click, the red lock disappears during the slide), and there is no visible track.  Thus if the Apple description is significantly different to Neonode’s to be non-patentable, Motorola’s phones — different from Apple in these same points — are not covered by the Apple patent.

In short, Apple’s multi-touch patent needs to be either invalidated, or Neonode’s implementation needs to be added to it, in order to sufficiently (and appropriately) narrow the claims.  Either way, Motorola is not in infringement of this patent, at the end of the day as Apple’s innovation here is limited to specifically a certain graphical effect, an effect that is not duplicated on the Motorola devices.

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