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Apple's and Motorola's Slip-Slidey Patent Scrap

By Richard Adhikari MacNewsWorld ECT News Network
Feb 20, 2012 5:00 AM PT

A regional court in Munich, Germany, has ruled that most of Motorola Mobility's smartphone products infringe on Apple's slide-to-unlock image patent.

Apple's and Motorola's Slip-Slidey Patent Scrap

Users of Apple's iOS devices slide a virtual button across the screen in order to "unlock" the device -- in other words, wake it up and make it ready to accept other input. It's meant to prevent so-called pocket dials on the device's touch-sensitive screen. Users also have the option to use a four-digit PIN for added security.

However, it seems Motorola's use of the slide-to-unlock idea was too similar to Apple's. The court ruled on three implementations -- two on smartphones and the third on the Xoom tablet.

Motorola won over the tablet's implementation. This is similar to the Samsung Galaxy Note's implementation, wherein the user swipes from inside a circle to another, bigger circle outside, patent consultant Florian Mueller said.

"We are going to appeal," Motorola spokesperson Christa Smith told MacNewsWorld.

Apple is expected to contest the Munich court's ruling on the Xoom, Mueller suggested.

Cupertino did not respond to our request for comment for this story.

A Patent Ruling in Old Munchen

Apple's patent "covers gestures along a predefined, displayed path," Mueller told MacNewsWorld.

The reasoning of the court is straightforward, said Carl Howe, a vice president at the Yankee Group. "Apple's claims in its patent were both specific and defensible in terms of its being an Apple invention," he told MacNewsWorld. "As such, Apple is entitled to determine who gets to use this technology and who doesn't."

The Munich court's ruling is a permanent injunction that Apple can enforce at its own risk against a bond, Mueller said. However, it won't impact Motorola much because that company will only have to modify its products to continue selling them in Germany.

Going Through Changes

Motorola is already planning to make a modification. The ruling "concerns a software feature related to phone unlocking in select Motorola devices sold in Germany" and the company "has implemented a new design for the feature," the company's Smith said.

However, she declined to discuss this new feature further.

The change might involve implementing the slide-to-unlock circle in the Xoom across Motorola products impacted by the ruling, Mueller opined.

This "would be a relatively minor patch changing from the infringing method to the non-infringing method," Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group, told MacNewsWorld. "As things go, this is more annoying than damaging."

However, the change may not be of as much use as Motorola might think because Cupertino "has a point if it says that moving outside a circle is also a gesture that follows a predefined path," Mueller pointed out.

Further, changing to the slide-to-unlock circle used in the Xoom tablet may degrade the user experience on Motorola smartphones, Mueller suggested. Among this approach's drawbacks is that it is not very intuitive, he said.

Fallout, Boy!

The ruling will make slide-to-unlock "a distinctive differentiating feature between Apple products and Android ones," Carl Howe, a vice president at the Yankee Group, told MacNewsWorld.

"Apple gets to use swipe to unlock, while everyone else won't," Howe explained. "And because this is one of the first things anyone does with a tablet, it will likely become a signature difference."

Apple's also using its slide-to-unlock patent in lawsuits against the other two major Android device makers -- Samsung and HTC, Mueller said. "Whenever they decide to sue a fourth Android device maker, there's a good chance that slide-to-unlock will be part of the dispute again."

Amazon Steps Into the Slide Zone?

It's possible that Amazon might be the next target of an Apple slide-to-unlock lawsuit.

"The Amazon Kindle Fire also uses this potentially infringing straight [side to side] slide method [that's patented by Apple]," Enderle pointed out. "This suggests there may be some additional issues between Apple and Amazon coming"

Apple may feel the need to turn its guns on Amazon because of the Kindle Fire's strong showing. Strong sales drove the Kindle Fire from zero percent of the global media tablet market in Q3, 2011 to 14 percent in Q4, IHS iSuppli found. Meanwhile, the iPad's share fell from 57 percent to 39 percent in that period.

[Late Apple CEO] Steve Jobs' "final orders to his legal department and executive team were to kill Android," Enderle said. "They will use every angle they can find to carry out those orders."

Google Gets Up and Goes

Earlier this month, the U.S. Patent Office published a patent application from Google for input to a locked computing device.

This will let Google offer Android OEMs two new methods for unlocking their devices, according to Patently Apple said.

One method uses voice recognition; the other uses a two-icon approach where the user drags the cursor from a command-related icon on the device's screen to an unlock icon elsewhere on the screen. This will unlock the device and then trigger the command.

"I don't know how Google will make use of this technology, but what I can say is that this doesn't change anything about Google's liability for infringement of Apple's slide-to-unlock patent," Mueller said. "By implementing patent A, you can infringe patent B, and in that case you need permission from both right holders."

The change will probably be less intuitive than Apple's method, Enderle speculated.

However, the Yankee Group's Howe is more appreciative of Google's new gesture technologies as outlined in the patent,.

"To its credit, Google has innovated by employing different gestures with Android in anticipation of [Apple's] patent being upheld," Howe said. "In many ways, this is what patents were meant to do -- require inventors to come up with new, not-previously-used solutions to problems; it's an example of patents working as they were meant to, something that's been in short supply lately."

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