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.
March 2, 2010; 10:37 AM ET
Categories: Gadgets , Policy and politics
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