Apple's Lawsuit Casts a Wide Net

By Don Reisinger  |  Posted 2010-03-03

10 Things Apple's HTC Lawsuit Tells Us About iPhone, Android

In a surprise announcement earlier this week, Apple said that it is suing HTC for violating a whopping 20 patents. The lawsuit is an important one. It could set a precedent in the marketplace and allow Apple to practically control the sale and distribution of touch-based devices around the world.

It could also cripple Google's position in the marketplace, since it has relied on HTC to deliver several devices, including its Nexus One, to consumers.

But Apple doesn't care. The company is trying to dominate the mobile phone industry. And it plans to take down any company trying to beat it. That said, Apple is playing coy. The company indicated in a press release this week that all his company is doing is protecting its patents. That might be true, but in the process, if it wins the lawsuit, it could easily discourage any and all competition from delivering devices that are even remotely similar to the iPhone.

For journalists and industry analysts, the lawsuit is a goldmine of information. The court documents reveal a number of interesting facts about Apple, the iPhone, HTC and Android. Here's a rundown of some of the issues the lawsuit illuminates:

1. Remember NeXT?

Do you remember a small company from the 1990s, called NeXT Computer? If so, you'll remember that Steve Jobs started the company after he was ousted from Apple. When he made his triumphant return to the company, Apple acquired NeXT to use its software as the basis for Mac OS X. Ironically, NeXT makes an appearance in this lawsuit. In fact, it's listed as one of the "complaintants" in the suit. The reason why that might surprise you even further: Some of the patents that Apple says HTC violates are from 15 years ago and revolve around how operating systems work.

2. Apple is selling lots of iPhones

Apple's lawsuit includes an interesting fact: It sold more than 20 million iPhones in 2009 alone. No wonder the company is protecting its patents so aggressively. The iPhone has become big business for Apple. And the more people who buy the device, the more the company can capitalize through iTunes and the App Store. Make no mistake, this lawsuit is about more than iPhone software.

3. Apple hates Android

Although Apple is taking on HTC in this lawsuit, it makes it blatantly clear in the documents filed with the court that it really hates Android. Apple even purchased Android-based devices from HTC that it believes violates its many patents. It wants to give the court physical evidence to show it just how similar Apple's patented technology is to Android's operation. HTC might be the hardware vendor delivering Android-based devices, but the real issue Apple has is with the mobile OS itself. That spells big trouble for Android.

4. Google is safe

But what about Google? Nowhere in the lawsuit is Google included as a co-defendant even though the company has developed the mobile OS for vendors. For now, it seems that Google will safely stay out of Apple's sights. But if Apple wins this lawsuit, it could give it the precedent it needs to threaten Google into meeting its demands on software design. Google should be watching these proceedings very closely.

Apple's Lawsuit Casts a Wide Net

5. Palm could be next

It's also clear from reading the lawsuit that Apple won't be content to stop with HTC. Even in a statement released this week, the company said that it will protect its patents against all competitors that it believes "steal" its technology. Realizing that, Apple might start targeting other companies in the industry that might offer something similar to the patents it's trying to protect in the HTC suit. Palm could be next.

6. It's not about multitouch

Before the world erupts with concern over the future of multitouch, we should end the discussion now: This lawsuit has nothing to do with multitouch. There is no mention made of the "pinch-to-zoom" feature. The company does not list "multitouch" as part of the lawsuit at any point. The issue revolves more around how HTC's mobile OS works and how it relates to operating system patents Apple holds.

7. It goes beyond the iPhone

Apple's lawsuit goes far beyond the iPhone. As noted above, some of the issues the company has with HTC date back 15 years when it secured patents on how operating systems work. For example, one alleged patent infringement, the "Object-Oriented Graphic System," discusses how graphics are displayed in an operating system. It was secured in 1995. It has nothing to do with the iPhone, but Apple ostensibly believes that it relates in some way to Android.

8. Unlock behavior is there

An Apple patent on how a user can unlock the iPhone with a "swipe" motion was secured in February. The company included it in its lawsuit, citing HTC phones that offer a similar functionality to help users access the main operating system. This is a big one. Apple's unlock screen is a great feature. Its competition knew that and built it into their own software packages. If Apple can win on this patent, it could totally change how users access their devices.

9. It targets Android's browser

Android's browser might suit the fancy of some users. But if Apple has its way, it will need to be reworked. One of the alleged patent infringements discusses how the HTC device lets people use their fingers to move around the screen in any direction, rather than in straight vertical or horizontal lines. So, when users move around a page in Android's browser in any direction they wish, Apple alleges that it violates one of its patents. If it wins, Android's browser could be much different than it is today.

10. iPhone screen shutoff

When a user receives a call and places the iPhone against their ear, the device's screen shuts off to save battery life and ensure they don't hit any buttons while talking. Apple alleges that it holds the patent to that technology and HTC is violating it by providing a similar functionality in its devices. The patent is specific, since it includes a touch-screen display and an ambient light sensor, but unfortunately for HTC, that means its devices might be subject to it.

Going forward, there's no telling what will happen. Apple might win its lawsuit, HTC might work out a deal, or the companies might spend years in court. In any case, one thing is certain: Apple plans to protect its patents and its iPhone. And it's targeting Android-based devices first.

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