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What the Mobile Patent Fight Is All About 222

Posted by timothy
from the want-to-touch-you-here-and-here-and-here dept.
GMGruman writes "Nokia, Apple, and HTC are all suing each other over mobile patents. Google and Microsoft are also in the game. InfoWorld's Paul Krill explains what the fight is all about: control over multitouch, the technology that enables gesture interfaces on iPads, iPhones, and other smartphones. And he explains the chances that the companies will settle their dispute as they jockey for advantage, why Apple has been playing hardball, and why competitors are fighting back just as hard."
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What the Mobile Patent Fight Is All About

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  • Useless shit (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday May 14, 2010 @01:04AM (#32204246)

    As if 'multitouch' is inventive or someone else would have never thought of it, its like someone patenting single click or one touch...

    oh WAIT>. fuck we're doomed

  • too much cool-aid (Score:5, Insightful)

    by jipn4 (1367823) on Friday May 14, 2010 @01:05AM (#32204250)

    Multitouch is significant to the mobile battle because it enables the use of gestures, which allows for sophisticated interactions on small devices

    You don't need multitouch for gestures; in fact, gestures are an alternative to multitouch. And it's also not needed; even software on iPhone and iPad doesn't use multitouch consistently, with some applications only using it for scrolling, others only for zooming, and few applications supporting rotation or more complex gestures. Someone has had too much of Jobs's cool-aid.

    And, besides, Apple didn't invent multitouch, and neither did the multitouch company they bought. What Apple did is what Apple always does: they pick some technology, try to get exclusive use of it somehow, and then hype it up, creating the impression that their products are unique and must-have devices.

    You can see their m.o. illustrated nicely in their negotiations with Swype: they were quite interested in Swype when they thought they could get an exclusive deal and dropped it like a hot potato when it turned out they couldn't. Apple isn't about choosing the best technology, they are about choosing something that's different from everybody else and creating the belief that it is better through marketing.

  • by Shihar (153932) on Friday May 14, 2010 @01:06AM (#32204256)

    The point of patent law is to "promote the useful arts". In other words, better humankind. The way this is done is by granting a temporary monopoly to an inventor for the singular purpose of encouraging more inventions. This bullshit has nothing to do with that. Apple has an utterly bullshit patent that any idiot who has watched any sci-fi in the past half century has seen before. "Multi touch" is not some breath taking innovation. It is a "not shit" next step for touch based devices (which are also "no shit" inventions). Frankly, this just brings to the forefront the glaring flaws in our patent system. The idea that you could patent a broadly defined (and obvious) method of interacting with a device is absurd. Idea should actually have to be novel and non-obvious. When large companies are slinging patents at each other not to protect sunk R&D costs, but just to trip up their competitors in court, you know that this entire system is fucked.

  • No it isn't. (Score:2, Insightful)

    by dadioflex (854298) on Friday May 14, 2010 @01:07AM (#32204270)
    The suit brought against HTC by Apple didn't include anything to do with multitouch, AFAIK. The multitouch patents aren't even relevant outside the US for the most part and nothing but the most precise implementation will likely survive any scrutiny with-in the US.
  • by Jurily (900488) <jurily&gmail,com> on Friday May 14, 2010 @01:18AM (#32204316)

    creating the impression that their products are unique and must-have devices.

    In a sense, they are unique. While I've never owned an Apple device, there's still this myth about their products, quality and usability.

    Who cares if there existed mp3 players before, if the iPod is the only one with a button that still works after a year of use? And who cares if this is actually true, as long as it's shiny enough?

  • by mjwx (966435) on Friday May 14, 2010 @01:19AM (#32204324)
    They've made a complaint to the FTC.

    Apple is suing because it's being eclipsed by it's competitors.

    Nokia is suing because it got sick of asking Apple nicely to pay for the patents they were using.
  • by lowlymarine (1172723) on Friday May 14, 2010 @01:23AM (#32204342)
    ...shouldn't it be Synaptics [engadget.com]? Their touchpads have been multitouch-capable since Apple was still using PowerPC chips and the iPhone was just some obscure Cisco product [cisco.com].
  • by SoupIsGoodFood_42 (521389) on Friday May 14, 2010 @01:29AM (#32204370)

    Multitouch significantly increases the number of simple gestures that can be created.

  • by FlorianMueller (801981) on Friday May 14, 2010 @01:30AM (#32204380) Homepage

    The Infoworld article makes some good points but the issue is too big to claim that those two pages say all this fight is about.

    The emphasis on multitouch (which doesn't rule out that other key patents are held by Apple as well) would be plausible. It's extremely difficult and rare for a patent holder to aim for total annihilation of a competitor. Patents are much more likely to be used against a competitor (i) to maintain a certain premium functionality (ii) or to impose license fees that make it harder for the late entrant to offer his solution at lower prices while increasing your own profitability. Just looking at how two different players deal with HTC, it's pretty clear that Microsoft pursues a licensing approach (which enabled HTC to avoid litigation by agreeing to pay) while it's increasingly probable that Apple actually wants to preclude competitors such as HTC from providing certain functionality (such as multitouch) at all. In that case, litigation (which is now ongoing between Apple and HTC) is rarely avoided because the alleged infringer could only avoid it by reducing the functionality of his product.

    The only way for a competitor to get away unscathed, neither having to pay royalties nor having to curtail the functionality of any product, is to strike a cross-licensing deal with the aggressor. So how likely is that to be the solution of the current dispute?

    While they are fierce competitors, Apple and Microsoft put a cross-licensing deal in place a long time ago, and Microsoft has such a powerful patent portfolio, especially in connection with operating system and graphical user interface functionality, that it's in a position to do such a deal with Apple. That's good for Microsoft and for its licensees.

    But how about everyone else? The camp that would most desperately need a cross-licensing deal with Apple is the whole Android camp, meaning Google and its hardware partners (the vendors who build phones based on Android, be it on the basis of a formal agreement with Google or on open-source terms). As the article explains, Google didn't even try to provide multitouch functionality by default and left it to those hardware partners to tread that dangerous path. When I talk to people, including IT-specialized journalists, about the mobile patent war, there's a very common misconception: "Google can do a cross-license with Apple." However, in recent years Google obtained only about 10% the number of patents that Apple received, and given the areas both companis focus on, it's likely that Google not only has fewer but also has, across its smaller portfolio, a lower percentage of patents that could really pose a threat to Apple. Google isn't a patent powerhouse. I only compared Google's patenting activity to that of Apple, and even Apple isn't extremely big (but some of those patents, especially the ones related to multitouch, may be very critical).

    You wanna see a massive patent powerhouse (which however almost certainly won't come to the rescue of Android)? IBM pointed out at a press conference last year that at least at the time it had (and might still have) more patents than Microsoft, HP, Oracle, Apple, EMC, Accenture and Google combined... [blogspot.com]

  • by mjwx (966435) on Friday May 14, 2010 @01:36AM (#32204412)

    ...shouldn't it be Synaptics? Their touchpads have been multitouch-capable since Apple was still using PowerPC chips and the iPhone was just some obscure Cisco product.

    This is what makes it so insidious and wrong. Apple don't have the hardware patents, they have software patents on certain processes (using two fingers to manipulate page size and so forth). Synaptic, IBM, 3M and a few others have the hardware patents so all Android phones with capacitive touch screens are capable of multi-touch in the hardware but it's not implemented in the OS precisely because the screen manufacturers bought the patent rights from Synaptics and so forth but Apple will not license the software patents to an OSS project.

    Despite my usual disposition, this is not a rant against Apple specifically but the general uselessness of software patents and their tendency to inhibit innovation and competition. Although Apple, as a main contributor to software patents is far from innocent but they are the symptom, software patents are the disease.

  • by rtfa-troll (1340807) on Friday May 14, 2010 @01:56AM (#32204482)

    Right, but the thing is that, although that's what the patent is supposed to be for, in fact the way they set it up Apple is claiming patents on multi-touch per-se. This is inherent in the idea of patents on ideas (software / business methods / mathematics). It's very difficult to define good legal boundaries which don't have stupid implictions. For example, software patent advocates actually often claim not to be advocates for software patents. They just care about transformations of matter. Including the change in the output of your screen caused by their software! In other words, the boundary which is supposed to limit software to where it's used as part of a machine process instead becomes a tool in manipulating the debate.

    I think the only logical end is a fairly hardline freedom of speech position. Patents, copyrights and trademarks should only be allowed where they demonstrably increase freedom of expression. With trademarks this is easy; if I don't have a proper name for a company which reliably means that company then it's difficult to discuss that company. For copyright, that's quite easy to show, as long as terms are short and DRM (of copyrighted material) is illegal. For normal physical patents, that's likely true as long as the development in the field of interest normally takes place over a term at least a few times as long as the term of the patent. For patents on abstract process that's never going to be true.

  • by wvmarle (1070040) on Friday May 14, 2010 @02:00AM (#32204492)

    While I mostly agree with what you say, it's not that easy.

    As you pointed out the idea of multi-touching and gestures is not new, it may even be called age-old. Think of a womans body... reacts very well under multiple touches. It's just a way of interacting. The implementation of that however is another matter. How to detect those touches that's where the patents come in. But patents is not an easy matter.

    For a start obviousness: many inventions that are patentable look obvious. This are very simple solutions to problems. But often they are only obvious after someone points it out to you. Novelty is a bit less ambiguous, as there is something like "prior art".

    The worst patent fights we see is typically in software; the second bad one is medicine. For the rest the patent system works pretty much as designed, that is for the traditional technical/physical/machine type inventions.

    Also in case of these "multi-touch" patents, it is most certainly not on the user-side of multi-touch. It must be on specific implementations of multi-touch, either technical (how to detect those two or more touches on a surface) or software (what to do with it). The first one I think could certainly be patent-worthy, the second not.

    There may be multiple ways to implement those touch surfaces: different detection tricks and so. Those may each be patentable, and no problem with that. Use method A, pay for patent A, and you're OK. Invent your own method B, you may patent it yourself, and you can implement multi-touch by yourself using your method. Patents work as they should.

    The problem is software-patents where a certain trick which may be implemented in numerous different, innovative ways gets patented. Then your new way to get the same result suddenly falls under an existing patent. And there it goes wrong.

  • by Arker (91948) on Friday May 14, 2010 @02:02AM (#32204496) Homepage

    Patent law has become completely perverted and is no longer even vaguely related to its constitutional form.

    I remember in school I was taught that a patent had to lay out information so that you could sit down and read it and learn exactly how to do something new and useful and entirely non-obvious. In return for teaching everyone how to do this, the patent holder got a short term monopoly. Even that system was subject to considerable doubt as to whether the cost was worth it, as the normal thing with inventions was that there were several inventors who hit on the same thing very nearly simultaneously. But at least it made some sense.

    Read a patent lately? They usually dont describe anything new or useful, and even when they do, they certainly dont do so in a way that would actually impart the necessary information to do it yourself. The old patent system may have been a bad trade in most or all cases, but it was a trade - now there is no trade at all. Just a pile of impenetrable gibberish filed to get a monopoly.

  • by pizzach (1011925) <pizzachNO@SPAMgmail.com> on Friday May 14, 2010 @02:12AM (#32204524) Homepage

    Yes Apple is doing wrong, but they are actually using the patent how a patent is supposed to be used. Not using it for patent trolling or for cross-licensing deals, but for a temporary monopoly on technology. I laugh at it because it is extremely ballsy and goes against the grain of how modern corporations work.

    On a side note, has patents ever stopped OSS before? I really do want to figure out how to get my multitouch scrolling working on Linux on this EeePC at some point.

  • by Wildclaw (15718) on Friday May 14, 2010 @02:23AM (#32204568)

    The way this is done is by granting a temporary monopoly to an inventor for the singular purpose of encouraging more inventions.

    And yet, over and over again, people seem to come up with very similar inventions independently. It is almost like inventions happen because the right prerequisites are there, and not because of some monetary incentive.

  • by mjwx (966435) on Friday May 14, 2010 @02:35AM (#32204624)

    but they are actually using the patent how a patent is supposed to be used

    Well yes, seeing as software patents are artificial monopolies on mathematical functions they are being used to prevent a competitor from releasing a different technology that performs the same function. They haven't patented the specific code (design), rather the function of the code (otherwise you could just change variable names and get around the whole thing)

    On a side note, has patents ever stopped OSS before?

    They never have, however patents frequently slow down OSS development.

  • by danerthomas (1633403) <drt@mac.com> on Friday May 14, 2010 @02:44AM (#32204658)
    Nokia and HTC sell licenses for their patents to many competitors. Apple wants to buy licenses from Nokia and HTC on the same terms, but... Nokia and HTC would rather cross-license to get access to multi-touch than sell licenses to Apple, and Apple wants to keep multi-touch exclusively to themselves for now. so... Apple uses Nokia and HTC patents without first getting a deal but is willing to pay for them at the going rate and is hoping that the court will order that settlement. Nokia (and others) use Multi-touch without first getting a deal and are willing to cross-license and/or pay for it, and are hoping that the court/FTC will order Apple to make multi-touch available to others. The question is: Are courts more likely to order Nokia and HTC to offer Apple the same deal that they offer everybody else, or are courts more likely to order Apple to sell something that they have not been willing to sell to anybody?
  • by Bill_the_Engineer (772575) on Friday May 14, 2010 @03:45AM (#32204880)

    Sigh. No need to bring that in to it and gloss over the real people involced. HCI researchers have been researching multitouch since the early 80s, or even before.

    You can't argue with the facts. Prior to FingerWorks in 1998 (which Apple bought), you had multitouch on touch tablets of different shapes and sizes. Most were separate from the display like a traditional keyboard, some had a projector that projected the screen onto the front of the touch pad, and some had the image projected from behind the surface. There even was an early monochromatic LCD phone that had a touch tablet embedded in front of it (I do not believe it was multi-touch).

    However using the technology, purchased from FingerWorks, Apple was able to combine a multitouch UI with a color LCD screen on a handheld portable device that was a functional cell phone. At great risk, since other touchscreen PDA and smartphones were suffering from poor sales.

    I don't think anyone thinks that Apple created their multitouch phone inside a vacuum, however Apple did see market potential in providing multitouch on a cell phone and patented their implementation of it, as well purchasing the IP of FingerWorks.

    So unless you are suggesting that anybody could take academic papers that discusses a single quantity method of using physically large off the shelf parts, and piece all those separate works together into creating a very thin handheld device that can be mass produced inexpensively enough to make it a viable consumer product, I don't know what point you were trying to make.

    Incidentally, Bill Buxton does not criticize the iPhone or Apple and just talks about the "long nose of innovation".

  • by Trepidity (597) <delirium-slashdotNO@SPAMhackish.org> on Friday May 14, 2010 @03:56AM (#32204924)

    I don't think you can generally patent an invention that already existed solely because you were the first to mass produce it inexpensively enough to make it a viable consumer product. If, in doing so, you came up with some novel innovation, you can patent that, but the innovation can't be as simple as combining the parts and then making manufacturing improvements to bring down the cost/size.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday May 14, 2010 @04:26AM (#32205050)

    And that's a good thing... why? Do you really think that most users are able to memorize a dozen combinations of different fingerings and motions? There is no visual indication of anything with those gestures.

    Gestures and multi-touch are anti-usability. They are more obscure than UNIX two-letter commands. It's supreme irony that a company that used to write usability on its banner all of a sudden is pushing such a geeky feature.

  • Re:Useless shit (Score:2, Insightful)

    by beelsebob (529313) on Friday May 14, 2010 @04:36AM (#32205096)

    If multitouch sensors were that easy to create, don't you think we'd have had them in 1980, along with all the craze over touch screens way back when?

    Bottom line – good quality touch screens that can take input from multiple contact points at once are hard to build the hardware for, hard to come up with algorithms to interpret the input from said hardware, and hard to build completely new user interfaces on top of.

    Not saying I agree with long term patents, or that I agree with all the corporate bitch slapping going on, but that doesn't make multitouch any less innovative.

    Your argument seems to be that "anyone could have thought of doing things with two fingers"... which is true... Unfortunately, not anyone could, or did think of *how* to do it. I have already thought of flying around in jet cars all day... Doesn't mean I know how to do it, or that it's in any way easy, or non-patentable.

  • by beelsebob (529313) on Friday May 14, 2010 @04:43AM (#32205140)

    This bullshit has nothing to do with that. Apple has an utterly bullshit patent that any idiot who has watched any sci-fi in the past half century has seen before.

    Hate to break it to you, but you don't get to patent an idea just because you thought "o hey, wouldn't it be cool if we had XYZ". You actually have to explain *how* you do XYZ, and of note, anyone who can do XYZ in a different way is still free to do so. Just seeing something on sci fi is not good enough, if no one could actually demonstrate how to do it.

  • MOD PARENT UP (Score:4, Insightful)

    by cyclomedia (882859) on Friday May 14, 2010 @04:50AM (#32205170) Homepage Journal

    Very succinct description of the state as I understand it too. Note that Nokia are simply suing for backdated licensing fees for their patents whilst Apple are suing to prevent their competitors using multitouch at all, reinforces the point that apple want it to themselves.

  • by Bill_the_Engineer (772575) on Friday May 14, 2010 @05:02AM (#32205214)

    Well yes, seeing as software patents are artificial monopolies on mathematical functions they are being used to prevent a competitor from releasing a different technology that performs the same function. They haven't patented the specific code (design), rather the function of the code (otherwise you could just change variable names and get around the whole thing)

    Interesting. While I do not agree that all software is patentable, I do see the need for software patents for very complex algorithms or concepts that cost a small fortune to develop. I also think your use of mathematical functions is a stretch. I know you're using math to argue that:

    Software is a mathematical function.
    Math can not be patented.
    Therefore, Software can't be patented. (yawn)

    The problem with that argument is software does not fit into what people consider traditional math. To the majority of people, there is a significant difference between f(x) = x^2 + 2*x + 2 and the Windows operating system.

    Technically math is involved in all computer programs, since the computer performs work based on the interpretation of instructions whose sequence is based on the current state of variables that are assigned values that correlate to some real world phenomenon. But couldn't the same be said of mechanical gears whose ratios are based on a mathematical function that allows the maximum torque for a given range of rotational speed?

    What attribute makes an automatic transmission patentable, and not a computer algorithm that converts speech into text? An even more interesting question is what is the attribute that makes a bi-metal coil that expands and contracts with temperature being used with a mechanical switch to interrupt the flow of current when a preset maximum temperature is reached, and not reading the voltage across a thermistor, converting that voltage to a temperature and using an if statement that will turn off a switch when temperate is greater than max temperature? Disregard that thermometers are old and obvious now... This discussion gets really complicated when FPGAs are considered. Discrete components are patentable but not VHDL code?

    Anyway, I think the "attribute" is a hard thing to define but I do believe that there are software algorithms that are complex enough to be patentable.

    I know I'm rambling now, but let's get back to Apple since it is the basis of this thread. Apple took a huge risk in entering the already crowded cell phone market. Apple gambled that the money spent to develop a multitouch cellphone would be rewarded by providing a unique and useful phone to the consumer. They took this gamble despite the fact that PDA phones and Windows CE phones were performing poorly in the marketplace. Apple's gamble paid off, and they should be entitled to enjoy the fruits of their labor.

    Now that Apple demonstrated that money can be made with a touch tablet phone, the other companies are trying to mimic the attributes of the iPhone in hopes of increasing their marketshare. Even Google is trying to get a piece of the action.

    Shouldn't Apple get a return on its investments? An investment the other companies did not make or risk? I happen to think that yes Apple should be granted patent protection. If the iPhone turned out to be a flop and consumers showed dislike towards the multitouch phone would people discuss the merits of Apple's patents? Probably not.

  • by Bill_the_Engineer (772575) on Friday May 14, 2010 @05:50AM (#32205412)

    The inventors lawyer saw a potential to make some money off the inventor would seem more likely.

    I didn't know that lawyers had this psychic ability to discovered undisclosed inventions. I can see them standing outside their offices concentrating as hard as they can and come to the conclusion that Mr Smith two blocks over has just invented a widget. I better run over there and convince him to let me patent it for him before another psychic patent lawyer does...

  • by Bill_the_Engineer (772575) on Friday May 14, 2010 @05:57AM (#32205434)
    The point wasn't the mass production. The point was the multi-touch smartphone. The previous works are the ingredients but not the actual concept of a multi-touch smartphone. The fact that it's mass producible makes the patent more valuable and therefore relevant.
  • by tiptone (729456) on Friday May 14, 2010 @11:07AM (#32208192)
    Yes they can. When that property is a patent that is part of a standard (GSM) it must be licensed on Fair, Reasonable and Non-Discriminatory terms.

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