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Will Apple's iPhone Patent Pre-empt the Pre?

By Erika Morphy MacNewsWorld ECT News Network
Jan 27, 2009 1:00 PM PT

The United States Patent and Trademark Office has granted Apple a key patent for its iPhone, which it applied for in September 2007. Patent 7,479,949 covers the product's distinctive multifunction touchscreen.

Will Apple's iPhone Patent Pre-empt the Pre?

It also encompasses technology behind the iPhone's hardware, operating system and certain phone and camera functions, such as the device's uncanny ability to determine which icon the user intended to press when more than one was selected.

Apple's Advantage

Apple is completely within its rights to protect its intellectual property, Bill Munck, chairman of the IP practice at Munck Carter, told MacNewsWorld. "It's the only way to protect market share."

"What they're patenting is what happens when the touchscreen senses the finger movements," he continued. "From a user application standpoint, it's a market-differentiator."

The user-friendly technology in the iPhone has changed the game for the industry, and competitors are scrambling to keep up, he noted. Munck Carter, for example, is switching phone services so the attorneys can use iPhones. It is also switching from PCs to Apple MacBook Air computers.

"The iPhone's interactive features have created a huge market share for Apple," said Munck. "It's almost like a personal agent. The iPhone is more interactive and user-friendly, and a big part of its success is due to this touchscreen technology."

As a result, other new products from competitors are moving away from pure PDA (personal digital assistant) functions, he said. "In short, Apple has a patent on a feature that everyone's going to want to have. When you use another device that doesn't have the same functionality, it's like night and day."

A Stronger Hand

The omnibus description is likely to spawn many more patents addressing the variety of features set forth in the patent specification, Raymond Van Dyke, a partner in the Washington, D.C., office of Merchant & Gould, told MacNewsWorld.

"A requirement of patent law is that the claims portion of the description, setting forth the exclusive rights, be fully supported by the specification description. The lengthy specification -- over 300 pages -- and copious drawings of about 100 means that there will be more patents issuing, building the iPhone patent portfolio for possible lawsuits against competitors," he said.

Besides solidifying the rights to its cash cow, Apple's wide-ranging patent gives it ammunition to go after competing products designed along similar lines.

Whither the Pre?

The Palm Pre is the device most likely to be impacted in the near term. It was demoed at the Consumer Electronics Show in January and is set to be released in the first half of this year. Initial reviews of the handset and its webOS operating system have been generally favorable.

A 3G phone that will run on Sprint's network, the Pre has WiFi, GPS, 8 GB of memory -- and a sharp multitouch interface. There are differences between the two devices; notably, the Pre has a qwerty keyboard that slides out from under the screen.

It is not just the Pre whose prospects are in doubt now, thanks to Apple's new patent, which also describes features that are not in the iPhone but are included in other products. U.S. law does not require a patent seeker to restrict its claim to products they have in development, he explained. "So long as the many rigorous descriptive and other statutory patent requirements are met, patentees can obtain coverage on features found in competitors' products."

Perhaps more devices will find themselves in Apple's crosshairs down the road -- but the Pre will surely be the first, said Rob Walch, producer of Today in iPhone, one of the largest iPhone podcasts.

"Instead of calling it Patent number 7,479,949, the Patent and Trademark Office should have called it 'Death to the Pre,'" he told MacNewsWorld.

"This patent will definitely give Apple's legal team a lot of ammunition in going after and stopping the Pre before it ever reaches the market," said Walch. "The Pre, by all accounts, was the most worthy competitor to the iPhone, and the first one to really have a feel when using that was 'iPhonish' in response and capability."

Apple probably had the Pre in its sights all along, Walch speculated, but was waiting to receive its patent. He referred to Apple COO Tim Cook's promise, during the company's last quarterly conference call, to pursue any company that infringed on its intellectual property.

"Palm was the intended target, and now [Apple has] the weapon needed to kill off the Pre," Walch said.

Apple is notoriously fierce about protecting its intellectual property. However, this fight also has a personal element to it. Irish U2 front man and humanitarian Bono has invested money in Palm.

"You just know that had to have irked Steve [Jobs] after he splashed Bono's image all over the [iPod]," said Walch.


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