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New Apple Patent Could Put Android in a Headlock

By John P. Mello Jr. MacNewsWorld ECT News Network
Oct 28, 2011 5:00 AM PT

It's a simple idea: When an unlock slider appears on the screen, swipe your finger to the right to unlock your device. But it could make things very difficult for developers working in platforms, such as Android, that compete with Apple devices, like the iPhone, iPod and iPad.

New Apple Patent Could Put Android in a Headlock

The so-called swipe-to-unlock idea officially became the intellectual property of Apple this week when the U.S. Patent Office approved the company's patent for "unlocking a device by performing gestures on an unlock image."

An abstract of the patent, which was filed on June 2, 2009, describes its subject like this:

"A device with a touch-sensitive display may be unlocked via gestures performed on the touch-sensitive display.

"The device is unlocked if contact with the display corresponds to a predefined gesture for unlocking the device.

"The device displays one or more unlock images with respect to which the predefined gesture is to be performed in order to unlock the device.

"The performance of the predefined gesture with respect to the unlock image may include moving the unlock image to a predefined location and/or moving the unlock image along a predefined path.

"The device may also display visual cues of the predefined gesture on the touch screen to remind a user of the gesture."

Thicket of Patents

What may be cause for alarm, especially for the Android universe, is that the unlock gesture is used today by many devices running that operating system.

Google, the lead developer of the open source Android, did not respond to a request from MacNewsWorld for comment on the patent.

Of course, just because Apple has a patent on something doesn't mean it's going to be asserting it on potential violators.

"Apple claims that it owns a 'thicket of patents' surrounding the iPhone and iPad user experience," Florian Mueller, an intellectual property activist-turned-analyst told MacNewsWorld. "That thicket just got denser, but since Apple has so many patents, it's hard to predict whether they will use one particular patent in litigation."

Apple did not respond to a request from MacNewsWorld for a comment its patent award.

Whether Apple asserts its new patent against its Android rivals may depend on whether the heirs to the house that Steve Jobs built intend to carry on the feud their mentor had with the creators of Google's mobile operating system.

"I will spend my last dying breath if I need to, and I will spend every penny of Apple's $40 billion in the bank, to right this wrong," Jobs is quoted as saying in his authorized biography Steve Jobs, published this week. "I'm going to destroy Android, because it's a stolen product. I'm willing to go thermonuclear war on this."

Deja Vu

Although the unlock patent has been approved in the United States, when Apple asserted a similar patent in Europe, it was rebuffed. In that case, a Dutch court declared Apple's unlock patent invalid, but only on a preliminary basis, and the patent is still on the books at the European Patent Office.

The patent reviewed by the Dutch court is based on an earlier unlock patent filed by Apple in December 2005. At the Dutch proceeding, it was revealed that early in 2005, a Swedish company had introduced a mobile phone running Windows CE that used the swipe-to-unlock feature.

The only thing that the Swedish phone, called the "Neonode N1m," didn't have that the Apple did was the slider control that moves across the screen as the swipe gesture is made. That didn't persuade the judge that Apple should be granted a patent for something as obvious as a slider image.

For critics of the U.S. patent system, this latest patent by Apple is just another example of what's wrong with the process. President Obama signed a patent reform bill into law last month, but that measure failed to address the issues critics have raised around the Apple patent, that of bad and overbroad business process and software patents.

"I think it's fair to say that with patents like this [Apple] one, one has to question whether or not the current requirements under patent law for novelty and non-obviousness are high enough," observed Mueller.

Not everyone, though, believes the patent system is broken.

"I'm not sure there is anything wrong with the patent system," John Economou, of Economou Patent Law, told MacNewsWorld.

"In litigation," he continued, "a patent is presumed valid, but if an accused infringer comes forward with clear and convincing evidence demonstrating that it was improperly granted, a court can invalidate it."

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