While its losses  to Android-powered rival Samsung Electronics Comp., Ltd. (KS:005930) in court over the last month have been painful, Apple, Inc. (AAPL) is having a pretty good week. On Monday the U.S. International Trade Commission agreed to ban HTC Corp.’s (TPE:2498) older smartphones from sale in the U.S., starting in April.
I. The Patent
On Tuesday the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) gave Apple another early Christmas present, awarding it a patent, which will doubtless be as controversial as it is valuable to Apple’s legal crusade. The patent covers a neat trick in iOS that allows you to speed up the process of accessing apps and returning to the phone app during a call.
The abstract of the patent, U.S. Patent 8,082,523, claims invention of:
A portable electronic device displays, on a touch screen display, a user interface for a phone application during a phone call. In response to detecting activation of a menu icon or menu button, the UI for the phone application is replaced with a menu of application icons, while maintaining the phone call. In response to detecting a finger gesture on a non-telephone service application icon, displaying a user interface for the non-telephone service application while continuing to maintain the phone call, the UI for the non-telephone service application including a switch application icon that is not displayed in the UI when there is no ongoing phone call. In response to detecting a finger gesture on the switch application icon, replacing display of the UI for the non-telephone service application with a respective UI for the phone application while continuing to maintain the phone call.
The key parts come later in the patent. The first key claim is the UI element that gives access to the app menu quickly:
displaying on the touch screen display a first user interface for a phone application during a phone call; detecting activation of a menu icon or menu button during the phone call, in response to detecting activation of the menu icon or menu button, replacing the first user interface for the phone application with a menu of application icons.
[Image Source: USPTO]
The second part describes the new clickable UI element that sits at the top of the screen, ready to be clicked to quickly dump you back into the phone app. Describes the patent:
in response to detecting the finger gesture on the application icon other than the phone application icon, displaying a corresponding application user interface on the touch screen display while continuing to maintain the phone call and modifying the corresponding application user interface to include a switch application icon that is not displayed in the corresponding application user interface when there is no ongoing phone call;
[Image Source: USPTO (left); Patently Apple (right)]
II. Prior Art: Why This Patent Should Have Been Rejected
Now there’s two apparent problems with this patent.
The first is the question of whether the menu button press should have been included in this patent, given the vast amount of prior art covering using hardware button presses to access the apps menu, during a phone call. For example every phone by Canada’s Research in Motion, Ltd. (TSE:RIM) has been capable of doing this for several years now, via pressing the back key.
For example the manual for the BlackBerry 7100 Series comments:
To use other applications during a call, click the trackwheel. Click Home Screen.
Apple’s patent was filed Jan. 6, 2008. The BlackBerry 7100 Series came out in 2005 [source; PDF] — three years before. It would be astounding if the claims involving the menu button press were upheld in court, given this near-identical prior art.
Returning to Apple’s claims, the idea of UI elements for faster switching is indeed somewhat more novel. Indeed BlackBerry users as far back as 2007 were calling for something like this in forums. Likewise, the means to fast return to the phone app via the inserted UI soft-button is nice. In Android this is a bit of an annoyance, laboriously navigating your way back to the phone app, after switching to email, etc. to dig up some detail while in call. (Ed- Whoops, apparently Android has a similar soft button via the notifications menu, let’s hope they don’t get sued and have to drop it…)
One important note here: the soft-button for fast switching is NOT included in the current version of iOS, as far as we can tell, although it may be included in future versions.
And the second questionable aspect of the patent is whether this “neat trick”is overly obvious. Unlike the prior art discussion, this is one that’s much less cut and dry. After all, what one person would call obvious another person wouldn’t.
III. Payola — Why the U.S. Patent System (and Others) are So Very Broken
At the end of the day Apple was granted the patent and gains yet another thermonuclear legal warhead in its growing arsenal, which includes patents on such features as multi-touch gestures, processor undervolting, and swipe unlocking.
People may dislike that Apple has been granted these patents, particularly given just how bad some of the granted claims are in terms of patenting well-known prior art. But at the end of the day this is the results of the current state of the American patent system and many other patent systems around the world. The USPTO is financially incentivized to grant bad patents, as it is paid on a per application basis. More patents granted — be they good or bad — means more submissions. And more submissions means — you guessed it — money.
[Image Source: Business Ethics]
Apple is certainly doing more than some, though, to milk the system. Most troubling perhaps has been its recent decision to start founding shell companies, including Cliff Island LLC, and partnering with experienced “trolls” like Digitude Innnovations. Shell companies are the hallmark of the patent troll as they allow for a means to file junk lawsuits without fear of repercussions or retaliation.
In a related note, iOS chief Scott Forstall is listed as the patent’s lead author. Mr. Forstall, who one employee ignominiously dubbed “Apple’s chief A-hole”, is thought to be a leading candidate to become CEO at some point in the future, given his similarities to late Apple CEO and co-founder Steve Jobs.
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