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Apple's HTC patent suit: Can it derail Google's Android devices?

Apple said Tuesday that it is suing HTC for infringing on 20 patents related to the iPhone and pursuing a permanent cease and desist order that could derail a wide range of Android devices.

This is a guest post from Larry Dignan, Editor in Chief of ZDNet, TechRepublic's sister site. You can follow Larry on his ZDNet blog Between the Lines (or subscribe to the RSS feed).

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Updated: Apple said Tuesday that it is suing HTC for infringing on 20 patents related to the iPhone and pursuing a permanent cease and desist order that could derail a wide range of Android devices.

Specifically, Apple is suing HTC in a Delaware district court and the U.S. International Trade Commission for violating patents related to "the iPhone's user interface, underlying architecture and hardware." Apple didn't detail the specific patents involved.

In a statement, Apple CEO Steve Jobs said:

"We can sit by and watch competitors steal our patented inventions, or we can do something about it. We've decided to do something about it. We think competition is healthy, but competitors should create their own original technology, not steal ours."

Funny that's what everyone in the smartphone food chain says. The ITC is going to be quite busy evaluating all the patent lawsuits against various mobile phone players.

HTC wasn't commenting until it reviewed the complaint.

Also see: Adrian Kingsley-Hughes' take and court documents (PDF).

For those keeping score at home, here's the ITC's plate:

The big question is whether Apple's first serve against HTC will escalate into a bevy of countersuits like the Nokia patent war has. It's unclear that HTC has the history or intellectual property to countersue Apple into a cross-licensing pact. Apple signaled that it wouldn't let competitors run off with its intellectual property a little more than a year ago and hasn't disappointed.

Apple vs. Android

It's hard not to take Apple's HTC suit as an indirect shot against Google. HTC is a big partner of Google and is launching an army of Android devices that are clearly aimed at the iPhone. Bottom line: Google's Android encroachment is the biggest threat to the iPhone and a patent suit could be a nice way to distract HTC. Would it be surprising if Apple also sued Motorola too?

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Indeed, Apple's complaint mentioned Android just as much as it does HTC. Devices targeted by Apple include HTC's Nexus One, Dream, Magic, Droid Eris and Google G1 among others.

Should Apple be successful it could derail the marketing and importation of many Android devices in the U.S.

In a footnote to its complaint, Apple said:

The categories listed are a shorthand summary of products currently accused of infringement by complainants. These descriptions, and the examples given therein, are not intended to exclusively define or otherwise limited the categories of accused products. Respondents have announced their intention to release additional products in the future that will infringe the asserted patents.

Then as an example Apple mentions that HTC will sell the HD2 in early 2010.

It's also notable that Apple hasn't sued Google directly. By going after device makers individually Apple could hamper the hardware partners that Google needs to bring Android to a bevy of devices.

A look at the patents

Apple's suit involves a bevy of patents ranging from user interface features such as scrolling and scaling to touch screen methods to power consumption to graphics.

The laundry list:

  • ‘331 Patent, entitled "Time-Based, Non-Constant Translation Of User Interface Objects Between States"
  • ‘949 Patent, entitled "Touch Screen Device, Method, And Graphical User Interface For Determining Commands By Applying Heuristics"
  • ‘849 Patent, entitled "Unlocking A Device By Performing Gestures On An Unlock Image"
  • ‘381 Patent, entitled "List Scrolling And Document Translation, Scaling, And Rotation On A Touch-Screen Display"
  • ‘726 Patent, entitled "System And Method For Managing Power Conditions Within A Digital Camera Device"
  • ‘076 Patent, entitled "Automated Response To And Sensing Of User Activity In Portable Devices"
  • ‘105 Patent, entitled "GMSK Signal Processors For Improved Communications Capacity And Quality"
  • ‘453 Patent, entitled "Conserving Power By Reducing Voltage Supplied To An Instruction-Processing Portion Of A Processor"
  • ‘599 Patent, entitled "Object-Oriented Graphic System"
  • ‘354 Patent, entitled "Object-Oriented Event Notification System With Listener Registration Of Both Interests And Methods"

What to watch going forward

As we look ahead to the next chapter in this Apple-HTC spat the following questions pop out:

  • What other Android bandmates of Google will be targeted? Motorola seems like a potential target.
  • Will there be a chilling effect on the Android ecosystem?
  • Will the discovery process in the HTC patent suit reveal whether there's Apple code in Android? While HTC, a hardware company is being targeted, most of the named patents have a software component and could tie into Android.
  • Does HTC have the intellectual property portfolio to countersue Apple? Let's face it these patent suits usually turn out to bring both parties into a big co-licensing deal. Nokia, Motorola, Palm and others have the portfolios to countersue Apple. Does HTC, which was founded in 1997, have the history or patent portfolio to compete?
32 comments
louie
louie

All of a sudden apple thinks it can play with the big boys. Their is a dinosaur compared to the other OS's. The only thing it's good at is the gesture control.

DT2
DT2

How can one patent a gesture? I think I'll patent the wave, both the one used to say hello and the one they do in sports stadiums - or how about the fist bump. Wonder how much I can get each time someone uses them. I could get rich!

k.diaz1
k.diaz1

It was a no brainer when I went with Motorola's Droid. And LOVE IT!!! I have family all over the country & not always in metropolitan areas where only AT&T (iPhone) has the best coverage. The Google Android system certainly has not dissappointed me in the last 4 months. Plus there are many new apps every day. I recommend the Android all the time to my friends & family. I even like it better than my RIM Blackberry that I have for work.

Oz_Media
Oz_Media

I guess they are still stinging from the Apple Records lawsuit that cost them so many millions. However, while Apple does hold patents, their patents also include many that are simply modifications to products developed by others, just a tad of hypocrisy from a company that designs next to nothing themselves. I think they are tired of being the company that comes late to market and doesn't catch up. The problem with patents in electronics is teh proof of unique development in an industry that is built upin minor modifications to existing technology. They try to modify something and pretend they changed the world themselves and simly don't want to allow for competition. Suing someone doesn't mean you are going to win or retain your patents, and often in corners you into an inability to further develop on your own patents as they infringe on other's modifications. I say good luck to them but I wouldn't fear buying a competitive product due to possible obsolescence. As noted, the case hasn't even been reviewed by the defendant yet, it could be dismissed as easily as it made IT news, which wouldn't be the first time IT news editors have jumped on the bandwagon prematurely to create a stir.

DHCDBD
DHCDBD

It would seem that Apple is patenting prior art. They have the money to force a suit lawsuit, but does HTC and the other companies have the money to launch a patent challenge based on prior art. Remember the IBM touch screen monitors of the 80's?

Mabrick
Mabrick

Here is a scenario for everyone. Let's assume that Apple succeeds and all patents are upheld, HTC must cease and desist, and the iPhone is the only device in its class allowed. Isn't that, by definition, a monopoly? Then HTC can take Apple to task under anti-trust legislation and force it to share. It could cost Apple billions if the recent EU fines against Microsoft and Intel are any indication (though this is currently being pursued in the U.S. similar fines can happen, even here.) I think tribute...I mean licensing fees is what Apple is really after and they are using the U.S. government to do it (at tax payer expense I might add.) Still, it would be wonderful to see them actually shutdown all the competition and then get nailed for antitrust just like Microsoft. Then we would have a rotten Apple as well as M$ to kick around!

lilywei
lilywei

From business point of view, Apple is doing something about its patent. However, from open source point of view, Apply should open its door. There is nothing better than share technology on technology base. Should idea be limited because someone has thought about it? What happen to the ideas that never public but form in conversation or communication? Do that have right too? The law should look at open source and wake up everybody who is not sharing open source point of view.

colin.roberts2005
colin.roberts2005

It's obvious Apple are scared that HTC have got a phone (Nexus One) that will spank the iPhone so they have to resort to bully boy tack ticks to try and stop it. I hope they fail Apple are just over priced gimmicks. P.S. I can't stand Apple or their products. LOL

BrianMWatson
BrianMWatson

I'm sorry, but after reading the patent descriptions, I think Apple's patents are as unjustified as the lawsuit. "Determining Commands By Applying Heuristics" and "Unlocking A Device By Performing Gestures On An Unlock Image" are PRIME examples of whats wrong with our patent system. Those are ideas, not technology. I believe they should be able to patent the SPECIFIC heuristics used, but not the IDEA of using heuristics. Same thing for gestures. As an example, if such ideas could be patented in other areas, the possibility exists there would be only one car manufacturer making 4-wheel drives because they patented the idea of using 4 wheels on a vehicle and applying power to all 4. You can see how ridiculous that sounds. Apple's assertions are no different...

gharlow
gharlow

Android is much better than iPhone. I can see why they would want to go to court on this one. My guess, once Google gets involved, and they will, is that we will see a patent suit aimed at Apple for infringments on Google Tech. That said, patents REALLY need to be rethought, in a way that protects inventors, yet rewards innovation, rather than a tool to quash innovation.

indigo196
indigo196

I think it is likely that Apple's patents will be found invalid due to existing art. Apple is skilled at this game though so it will be interesting to follow.

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

But in the mean time after they've blocked all competition, the next decade of consumers gets hosed the way the past decade of computer users has been hosed by a mono-OS environment. Too much collateral damage just so Apple can face anti-trust investigation in some distant future. Remember, these are cases that can take many years during which time the market remains hostage to a single monopoly entity.

jcockrell
jcockrell

You are so right collin.roberts2005 Apple = Overpriced, Over-hyped. I have a Android phone and its great I think Apple is scared because there's a phone or phones that are better and lighter on the wallet with a "Open Source" OS.

ben.taylor
ben.taylor

Those patent descriptions are ridiculous. I can't believe that is allowed. Why not have. "Make a phone call on a portable device"!!!

gharlow
gharlow

I have seen "idea" patents win over and over, rather than the SPECIFIC underlying technology. Today you would not patent a specific mouse trap with descriptions of the mechanism, but would rather patent "a device, object or mechanism, the purpose of which is to capture or kill mice". Then you just use anyone who invents a better mouse trap. Clean and easy eh?

d'wolf
d'wolf

surely as both machines use opensource operating systems, no patent infringement there, and probably the original conception of the GUI used would have dated back to Nokia/Symbion or even Smalltalk? (in which case Jobs etal probably plundered it from Xerox!)

Shepps
Shepps

Ironic that this lawsuit is now making me, too, look at other phones apart from the iPhone. I had been considering the HTC HD2. Anyone have anything good to say about Android then? And why?

bikingbill
bikingbill

Last year's decision in i4i v. Microsoft shows that patent protection does work. I don't blame Apple for seeking to defend its patents. Indeed, why go to the trouble and expense of obtaining a patent if you aren't going to defend it? Where I do agree with you is that the issuing of patents needs to be looked at. I have doubts as to how many patents - in general, not just Apple's - are for genuine inventions as opposed to seemingly minor developments. The other area of concern is the international dimension. Even here, within the relative trading harmony of the EU, patent legislation varies from country to country.

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

Hardware patents have some validity provided the applicable Patent Office applies some rational thought (which disqualifies the USPTO). Software patents are just all kinds of complete madness though. From patenting a math formula right on through to stifling the industry beyond benefit. Not to mention that software is protected by copyright so "but we need patents to protect our work" is bunk.

TecKnight
TecKnight

This lawsuit is an obvious attempt by Apple to create a "chilling effect" on the Android OS, who is rapidly eroding iPhone's market share at an alarming rate. In my opinion, their only enforceable claim may be multi-touch. Their other claims are overly broad and will be thrown out sooner or later, as they are vague "iPhone experience" claims that are not worth the patent they are written on.

BillyDude
BillyDude

Indeed, the first multi-touch UI I saw was in the movie "Mission Impossible!".

paul
paul

Google now know that Android is a real threat - Apple are admitting as much by doing this. Were I interested in an iphone, this would make me look more closely at Android to find out what it is that's bothering them. Having said that, most iphone buyers are unaware that there is an alternative.

Mabrick
Mabrick

If the length of time it took M$ to get the browser choice "fix" in place for the EU is any indication the mono-OS environment you write of is becoming vanishingly short. However, I still maintain that Apple is after tribute. Some people just will not buy Apple as others will buy nothing else. Apple knows this, they are realists if nothing else. With Nokia breathing down their backs (and rightfully so) they will have to pay for that pound of Apple flesh somehow. I think they have decided that since they will likely have to pay tribute to Nokia, HTC can pay tribute to them. The world continues to spin. Life goes on. Hooray.

enricog
enricog

Awesome I better go out an quickly patent "Touch iteraction" Where by anything that allows you to interact with it via touch is in breach.

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

I'd look at Google's direct to market phone but admittedly, I'm a fork snob who prefers to remain as close the parent fork as possible. Since Google provides the OS distribution, they are the parent with all third parties forking from them. My thinking in this specific case is that you have a better chance of Google's branded hardware accepting future updates where third party Android phones have already shown themselves to be locked to a specific earlier version. Mind you, this assumes Google isn't going to also design it's hardware for a specific version instead of remaining compatible with future firmware updates.

Tom-Tech
Tom-Tech

Not sure what the latest Android devices are like but the HD2 is great, I was playing with a friend's recently. Will be interesting to see what HTC can do with Win Mo 7 if it's any good.

Shepps
Shepps

had the question of EU patents not been laid to rest? (unenforcable at the moment?). Out of all the stories the I.T. world generated, the one on EU patents was the most confusing of all. I still don't know where we are here. Can anyone enlighten me? Does it mean that Apple cannot uphold patents in the EU for example?

cmol
cmol

can't say much for the iphone, since i've not had a chance to play with it, but can say i've had an android for the past two months, the HTC Hero in fact ... and can't complain. most of what the critics said is true, the hware is under-spec for the os & gui, but the functioniality is awesome nonetheless. happiest with this phone than i ever was. better for me than the blackberry or win mobile based devices. the apple suite scares me a little. makes me wonder what support i'm looking forward to from HTC with RE to android if this sticks.

Vulpinemac
Vulpinemac

I doubt that, considering how many commercials are out there for the Droid and other Android-based phones. In fact, Android commercials seem to be running at 4:1 against the iPhone... yet iPhone sales continue to grow.

Shepps
Shepps

been playing around with one off a friend and I have to say I am impressed. Very responsive and for me the real killer is the number of pixels on the screen. There are simply more on the HD2 which makes browsing nicer. Alot of hacks available (at XDA developer forums) which can either be a good or a bad thing depending on what sort of person you are. One thing I prefer on the iPhone is the Google Maps App oddly. Love the way it rotates the map to show your direction (using compass), rather than a static North pointing map with an arrow that tells you which direction you are pointed...