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Apple finally gets around to suing somebody over its iPhone patents

More than three years ago, Apple introduced a new gadget called the iPhone. Chief executive Steve Jobs showed off its elegant "multi-touch" interface and took a moment to crow over its legally sanctioned uniqueness: "And, boy, have we patented it!"

Over the next three years, a succession of other devices with multi-touch interfaces shipped from competing vendors: Microsoft's Surface kiosks, Hewlett-Packard laptops and desktops with its TouchSmart software, Dell's Latitude XT and XT2 tablet computers and Studio Touch laptops and desktops, Wacom's Bamboo input tablets, Palm's Pre and Pixi phones, and a lineup of devices from different manufacturers running Google's Android software (although only some support multi-touch today, an upcoming software update will bring that feature to others).

This morning, Apple sued one of those competitors.

The Cupertino, Calif., firm filed a patent-infringement lawsuit against Taiwan-based HTC, the manufacturer of such Android phones as the HTC Hero and Google's Nexus One, alleging that it had infringed what a press release described only as "20 Apple patents related to the iPhone's user interface, underlying architecture and hardware."

The actual complaints filed with the U.S. International Trade Commission and the U.S. District Court in Delaware -- posted not long ago at the Wall Street Journal's Digital Daily blog -- specify much more than just the multi-touch features described in U.S. patent No. 7,479,949.

But all of the other claims outlined in those filings cover internal features, ways that phones (including some of HTC's Windows Mobile models) assign tasks, share data and manage system resources behind the screen. Those should be easier things to "design around" without a user noticing than a patent-protected user-interface component.

The weird thing about the lawsuit, however, is not its claims made but its target. HTC isn't the primary author of software on Android phones -- Google is.

Meanwhile, Apple's inaction against all those other companies shipping multi-touch products suggests -- as a lengthy piece from Gizmodo argues -- that its vaunted patent covers only a few specific details of that interface concept.

At some point, judges and juries will decide these matters. But the dubious history of tech-patent litigation suggests that we're a long way from then. Between possible countersuits from HTC (everybody else does that in these circumstances, why not this company, too?), the inevitable requests for reexamination of some patents, and appeals of any verdicts, I would not be surprised to see Apple's suits still simmering away by the time I'm ready to upgrade from the HTC Android phone I just ordered. So my advice to anybody worried about buying the same thing -- or any new gadget, since just about anything can fall into a patent thicket these days -- is not to panic.

If you've got a rooting interest in this fight -- or, better yet, if you can offer insight on any of Apple's claims -- the comments await. Let me know what you think.

Update: Engadget's Nilay Patel posted a more detailed look at each of the patents Apple is citing in its two complaints. It covers some pretty technical ground, but it's worth your time--along with an earlier, longer post of his which questions the entire "multi-touch patent" storyline and offers a convincing theory about why Apple hasn't sued Palm.

By Rob Pegoraro  |  March 2, 2010; 10:37 AM ET
Categories:  Gadgets , Policy and politics  
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Are you giving up on your IPHONE? I thought you were an "Apple Man"...

How come you're changing phones...or are you?

It's interesting that Apple doesn't seem to have the chutzpah to sue Google, so they sue a smaller player, who may or mot not be directly involved.

Posted by: henwin | March 2, 2010 1:06 PM | Report abuse

About the surface, wiki says "The product idea for Surface was initially conceptualized in 2001 by Steven Bathiche of Microsoft Hardware and Andy Wilson of Microsoft Research." Kinda makes it not a copycat.

Posted by: hesaid | March 2, 2010 2:14 PM | Report abuse


Found malware on XT Laptop, called "Antivirus XP 2010". Kept popping up with warnings of Privacy Alerts and Infections and so on. Could not remove it using PC Tools, Spyware Terminator, etc. Finally, downloaded Microsoft Security Essentials from an uninfected XP Desktop, installed it on infected Laptop and ran a scan. It is still running.

What is the best way to (1) remove such crap, and (2) keep it from infecting my computers?

Thanks in advance for your suggestions.

Posted by: MoneyEyer | March 2, 2010 2:17 PM | Report abuse

Rob P probably remembers back in the day when some internet weirdo named "klaatu" (sheesh!) kept trying to convince him that something that "klaatu" called "the BeltCom" would eventually result from evolution of cellphone systems and convergence with the InterNet's modes and capabilities.

Sure, it's been a long time since Rob was on UseNet, about 15 years almost. That's sure a long enough time for what was a wacky SciFi prediction -- from a notorious internet flake with a tendency to be prolificly verbose -- to become enough of a reality to drive a multi-billion dollar industry and for people to be suing each other over "who thought of it first".

Here's a blast from the past, Rob:

Posted by: thardman | March 2, 2010 3:27 PM | Report abuse

Rob...please share which HTC phone you are buying (or is this a vendor demo unit for a review).

Posted by: Ebola_22039 | March 2, 2010 3:32 PM | Report abuse

What is the best way to (1) remove such crap, and (2) keep it from infecting my computers?

Thanks in advance for your suggestions.

Posted by: MoneyEyer
As this problem seems unrelated to having administrator privileges, the best way is to create a new account on the computer and just copy over your documents.

Posted by: edlharris | March 2, 2010 4:03 PM | Report abuse

As an aside to the topic of Android phones, I'm still wondering when the Adobe Flashplayer will be available for the Android platform. Have you heard anything?

Posted by: YadaYada1 | March 2, 2010 4:19 PM | Report abuse

I hope that each company sues the other into oblivion. Their role in making zombies out of Americans should have some costs associated with it. It's a national shame to see the downcast eyes and stumbling shuffle that people have adopted as a consequence of using these devices.

Posted by: tm13 | March 2, 2010 5:25 PM | Report abuse

@henwin: I'm not an "Apple man" and I don't own an iPhone; however, I have an iPhone on loan from Apple that I use for testing iPhone apps and mobile-Web sites. (The phone I do own is so embarrassingly obsolete that I don't even want to talk about it at this point.)

@MoneyEyer: You're dealing with what's best called "scareware." See the Help File item I wrote on that topic; short version of it is that you need to keep your browser up to date and be skeptical of bogus alerts on the Web.

@thardman: Klaat, you just might have a case there!

@Ebola_22039: I have to have some secrets... for now. I'll probably write some sort of "how it's working out" post about the purchase--yes, this is not a review model--in a few months.

@YadaYada1: It's still in testing; Adobe shipped the third beta release two weeks ago.

@tm13: Were you trying to talk to me? Sorry, I was busy checking something on my phone...

- R

Posted by: Rob Pegoraro | March 2, 2010 5:58 PM | Report abuse

I'm relieved! I thought maybe you'd knocked yourself out against a door jam or fallen down some stairs.

Posted by: tm13 | March 2, 2010 6:22 PM | Report abuse

You go after the weakest party (in this case, HTC), get the courts to set definitions and precedent on the patent claims, and then go after the others based on what you prevail on. Also, by going after HTC, Google is likely to help HTC and thus reveal their likely defense strategy in the future. Very clever legal strategy on Apple's part.

Posted by: rogernebel | March 3, 2010 7:45 AM | Report abuse

Google Latitude + Google Ocean = Real-time Fishing LBS Contents

Have you heard about Real-time Fishing LBS Contents? We have proposed this Service Model to Google over 4 years ago. Real-time Fishing LBS Contents is Location Based Service for IPTV, WiMAX, Mobile. This Service Model was created in 2002 by I&IWorld. I&IWorld's located in South Korea. As you know, there're many people enjoy fishing in the world(about 5 hundred million). I&IWorld's Real-time Fishing LBS Contents is like these.

*Main Functions*
1.The underwater topography and 3D views with fishing spots
2.Real-time fishing points tracing by GPS and angling direction guide
3.Service the real-time fishing condition about fishing place(weather, water temp, depth etc)
4.Angler Social network(such as Second Life)

Everyone knows that Google motto is, 'Don't be evil.' Is it all right? Visit, and type 'Real-time Fishing LBS Contents'. Search If you need more information, please send your email address.

Posted by: iiwmaster | March 3, 2010 7:59 AM | Report abuse

@MoneyEver, to fully rid yourself of Anti-Virus 2010 is a detailed process involving deleting registry entries, stopping processes associated with the malware, and run your anti-virus scan. The easiest way is to a search on this malware for better instructions to remove it.

Posted by: RDSpeer | March 3, 2010 8:03 AM | Report abuse

I had this same problem on my XP computer about 2 months ago. I ended up rebooting in "Safe Mode" and using XP's Restore function to restore to a date prior to when the malware first appeared.

Posted by: tedpl | March 3, 2010 9:58 AM | Report abuse

They have to run after a small fish in a big pond (HTC) as opposed to running after a big fish in the pond (Google). A question begs to be asked: why not run after Google, or Microsoft for that matter?

Posted by: docchari | March 3, 2010 10:07 AM | Report abuse

MS and Google have lots of cash and very good lawyers so you go after the small fish who does not. You outspend the small fish on lawyering and win some points then go after the big fish.

Posted by: rogernebel | March 3, 2010 10:46 AM | Report abuse

Apple is a chump company.

Posted by: cbmuzik | March 3, 2010 11:18 AM | Report abuse

@docchari @rogernebel Google and Microsoft (and Palm, for that matter) probably have much larger patent portfolios. Those make it easier for a company to a) craft a countersuit alleging infringement of their own patents, and b) settle things with a patent cross-licensing deal.

- RP

Posted by: Rob Pegoraro | March 3, 2010 1:07 PM | Report abuse

@RobP: I am reminded of an SF story by a patent lawyer in which Arthur C Clarke tries to take legal action against COMMSAT/INTELSAT because he did, after all, invent the concept of the geosynchronous telecommunications satellite.

The story concluded that Clarke's legal obstruction was that he had described it adequately in a _coprighted_ article to have secured patent, _if_ he had applied for within a statutory time limit roughly equal to the potential patent's lifetime. (17 years in th US.)

Subsequent research confirms this hypothesis; Clarke's biggest problem was that no geosync commsat was ever produced until right about the time that Clarke's potential patent _would have_ expired, if he had ever actually filed for it.

However, since the copyrighted novel in which I pretty much exactly described the modern iPhone-class "beltcom" was copyrighted in 1995, and since Apple and others applied for patent before 2012, I cannot claim their patent but I am pretty certain that I can invalidate quite a lot of patent claims as being "prior art". ;)

The novel in question is internet-published and copyright 1995 by yours' truly, "In the Fall".

And I've had the IT property rights declaration on the title page since 1996...

Want to make the news instead of just report it, Rob? Be a witness! ;)

Posted by: thardman | March 3, 2010 1:27 PM | Report abuse

The media and the popular imagination just don't get the reality of technology patents. Intellectual property is a reality of our legal system. Litigation about patents has to do with profit and loss statements not with combat over religious virtue. Enforcement of patents is targeted at those who are making money off of a technology and who can afford to pay money to license patents. Particularly, with software, there seems to be an evolution of what is patentable. But the bar for an innovation that can be patented is generally fairly low. Basically the innovation has to be one that requires some level of technical skill. In this case, the issues in question may be fairly significant. User interfaces based on touch panels with per pixel sensors are a hot area. The question of how much intellectual property Apple owns and what competition they can exclude is significant. There is also the big question of whether they would try to exclude competion to the iPhone and the iPad by refusing to license their patents or whether they just would expect competitors to pay what is usually referred to in the software industry as fair and non discriminatory license fees. Exactly what happens in the software industry is unclear because the large majority of patent agreements are made in private negotiations that the public is totally unaware of. But, the general practice among companies like Microsoft and IBM seems to be nondiscriminatory licensing at fees that are intended to make some money but not intended to exclude competition. Apple's intentions remain unclear.

Posted by: dnjake | March 3, 2010 2:24 PM | Report abuse

They're going after HTC because of their HTC "Sense" UI which sits on top of Android (and Windows Mobile). That gives gestures and a bunch of other iPhone-like capabilities to Android (I have a Sprint HTC Hero so I have the Android version of what they're talking about.

Posted by: rzeman-post | March 3, 2010 9:19 PM | Report abuse

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