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2 felix FRIDAY 19 MARCH 2010

Technology Editor Samuel Gibbs


TECHNOLOGY technology.felix@imperial.ac.uk

The Touchscreen Patent Wars


Simon Worthington looks at the broken world of international patent law as Apple and
HTC fight over Google’s Android operating system and it’s use of a touch screen interface

O
n March 2nd, Apple Inc. eral as to cover any implementation ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ between the wonder though if they could really be
filed a suit against mobile where the system could be used. For big mobile companies over the past so naive as to think that creating such Samuel Gibbs Technology Editor
phone manufacturer HTC example, the patent for list scrolling few years, creating a ‘don’t sue me and an original device wouldn’t set new
in which they claimed ten covers any touch screen device that has I won’t sue you’ situation. As long as standards in phone design.

I
of their patents relating to mobile de- a processor, memory and is trying to no-one sues anyone else the system You’ve also got to wonder how Ap- t’s been a short week for technol-
vices had been infringed. The case cov- move or resize a document or window. works, because the companies know it ple think winning this case could pos- ogy here at the felix towers and
ers nearly every Android-based phone It’s hard to think of a situation where a only takes a court case for one patent sibly help them. Ignoring the fact that as such we haven’t got a Weekly
that HTC manufactures, including the touch-sensitive machine would be try- to open the floodgates for themselves this is really bad publicity that could Wrap-Up for you, sorry. But Si-
new Google-endorsed Nexus One and ing to move a window without a proc- to be hit by a load of litigation in retali- result in a consumer backlash, it’s very mon this week has a good look into
the T-Mobile G1. If the case is success- essor, so this is so general as to cover ation. So why has Apple now decided unlikely that Google will simply walk what’s going on with what could be the
ful, HTC may have to pay damages to any touch screen device invented. This to break this unwritten rule? away from this case and leave the mo- start of the Touchscreen Patent Wars
Apple and could be banned from sell- means that any device which does this, Earlier this February, Google ena- bile market altogether. The more likely (you heard it here first folks). Apple
ing any of the offending phones in the violates Apple’s patent. bled ‘pinch-to-zoom’, a feature that the situation is that they’ll go back to the Vs. HTC, which is actually Apple Vs.
US. The suit was brought to the Dela- The objection to situations like this iPhone is famous for, on some of its drawing board and keep working until Google with HTC caught in the cross-
ware State Courts in the US, partly be- is that patents should not cover in- newer Android phones including the they come up with ideas that are even fire, in a fight over touchscreen inter-
cause this claim would not be admiss- ventions that many people could eas- Nexus One. This is technically in viola- more revolutionary than the iPhone. action patents. Messy stuff, but check
able in other regions such as the EU. ily create independently of each other tion of one of Apple’s software patents You can bet your bottom dollar that out the article on your left for the in-
The patents in question refer to por- and should not impede development mentioned earlier, and this time Apple whatever they come up with they won’t side scoop.
tions of mobile phone design which of ideas, like the list scrolling example have decided to sue. HTC are liable be willing to share with Apple. Does Apple’s iPad went up for pre-order
Apple pioneered with the iPhone, with above. Clearly though, software pat- because even though they don’t make Apple really think that it’s the only one this week in the US, with some 50-
most specifically to do with touch- ents can and do protect some genu- the software they do manufacture and who can come up with new ideas? 90,000 rumoured to have been bought.
screen technology. The way a user’s inely good and useful ideas, such as sell the phone, and so are responsible The natural extension of behaviour Apple’s already warned people in-store
finger can slide a list and the ‘pinch- security or cryptographic concepts for its features. It may be that Apple is like this is that everyone keeps their that there’s going to a shortage of the
to-zoom’ feature are amongst the con- that took a lot of work to create. The trying to indirectly harm Google, who new patents and technologies to them- fabled tablet when it launches on the
cepts covered but without any specific line between trivial and non-trivial is now beginning to be see as a serious selves. It’s ridiculous to think that the 3rd of April. Of course in the UK, we’re
detail about how these features should software inventions is not universally competitor, by stifling its phone busi- next generation of iPods or Zunes going to have to wait till ‘late April’ be-
be implemented. This means that any agreed upon, being drawn in different ness in the US. Compared to other in- could end up with fewer features than fore fanboys can rush to the church of
device which makes use of a finger to places in different countries. The US dustry leaders like Microsoft or Nokia, their predecessors because everyone is Apple and get their grubby mitts on it.
move up and down a window would system is notoriously lenient on how Google and HTC have relatively few so scared of violating patent law and Will it be a run-away success? Well if
technically be covered by Apple’s pat- original or obvious the new software software patents relevant to Apple’s unwilling to pay huge licence fees. This pre-orders are anything to go by, it’s
ent. These ideas are so blindingly obvi- design needs to be. business and so are limiting the dam- just stifles innovation and sets back going to be at least as successful as the
ous and fundamental to touch screen What this leads to is companies ap- age that any return litigation can do to progress on mobile technology. Plus, original iPhone launch.
design that it’s hard to think they could plying for as many patents as they can them via the same method. all these suits cost money and eventu- Support documents, that went live
even really be classed as ‘inventions’. for ideas that are as general as they Some commentators have also sug- ally that cost has to pass on to the con- this week, also showed that the iPad is
Apple are not however completely to can get away with, effectively buying gested that Apple may have taken the sumers. If Apple really care about the treated a little differently by Apple than
blame, as in some way they are ‘vic- up patent ‘real estate’ for their own adaption of its original ideas by Google mobile device marketplace (and they it’s staple, the iPhone. When your iPad
tims’ (if you could call them that) of a use. Obviously, this can lead to prob- and HTC personally. It’s impossible should, because it makes up a large ma- battery needs replacing $50 will buy
broken patent law system. lems with one company owning some to deny that the iPhone was a revolu- jority of their income) then they should you not only a new iPad battery but
In the US, software patents are grant- pieces of a de- sign and another tion in mobile design. Most phones do the intelligent thing and drop the a whole new iPad. Deal of a century if
ed for almost any new concept or idea company owning the rest, up to that point had relied on a hard suit, using the money they would have you ask me, but then again it’s unlikely
in the software world. The point about meaning that no- keyboard, navigation keys and a sty- spent on lawyers and bureaucrats to to be a new ‘off the shelf ’ variety and
patents is that you are only meant to be one has enough lus. Apple pioneered many new ideas fund their own research and develop- more likely a refurbished unit. Noth-
able to patent actual implementations patents to make a that have been universally taken up by ment. ing to sniff at mind you, because by
of an idea meaning only a particu- finished product almost all other touch-screen phone the time your battery is getting tired,
lar system of components would be without licencing. manufacturers. Some have suggested so too is the rest of the device. Gone
covered by it. However, the patents As this is clearly ri- the powers that be at Apple are dis- will be that prefect finish and ‘Ap-
granted to Apple, and many other diculous there seems gruntled at working hard to create this ple lustre’; so getting all that back
software companies besides, to have been a ‘design revolution’ and seeing others and a new battery for $50 sounds
are so gen- reap the rewards. Is Apple simply great to me. Now all I have to
frustrated that their key design do is figure out wether an iPad
has been copied? You have to really has a future in my device
port- folio. Not con-
vinced my-
self, yet.