Apple patents using apps during calls

Is the iPhone more of a steal for a robber? Image courtesy of Flickr user Brett Jordan

COMMENTARY Apple (AAPL) is having quite the week when it comes to legally protecting the iPhone from competitors, and it's only Tuesday. First was the victory at the U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC) over HTC. The agency approved a ban of HTC handsets that it ruled infringe on one patent out of the 10 that Apple had originally asserted against its Google (GOOG) Android-fueled competitor.

The ban doesn't start until next April and HTC said that it will remove the infringing feature by then, so its business won't face disruption. As patent blogger Florian Mueller notes, Apple would need a set of such enforceable patents for real "competitive impact." But the company keeps getting broad and fundamental patents on basic smartphone features. And its latest, granted today, is another doozy: the ability to swap to an app while maintaining a phone call.

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Drop that call

Patent number 8,082,523, called Portable electronic device with graphical user interface supporting application switching, has a vital independent claim that is much broader than it looks on first reading:

A method, comprising: at a portable electronic device with a touch screen display: displaying on the touch screen display a first user interface for a phone application during a phone call; detecting activation of a menu icon or menu button during the phone call, in response to detecting activation of the menu icon or menu button, replacing the first user interface for the phone application with a menu of application icons including an icon for the phone application and an icon for a non-telephone application; maintaining the phone call while displaying the menu of application icons on the touch screen display; detecting a finger gesture on an application icon in the menu of application icons other than the phone application icon; in response to detecting the finger gesture on the application icon other than the phone application icon, displaying a corresponding application user interface on the touch screen display while continuing to maintain the phone call and modifying the corresponding application user interface to include a switch application icon that is not displayed in the corresponding application user interface when there is no ongoing phone call; detecting a finger gesture on the touch screen display on the switch application icon; and in response to detecting the finger gesture on the switch application icon, replacing display of the corresponding application user interface with the first user interface for the phone application while continuing to maintain the phone call.

Breaking it down, here's the list of steps the patent actually covers:

1. During a call on a mobile device with a touch screen, with the phone user interface showing, the users touches either a menu button or an icon.

2. The device replaces the phone interface with a menu of application icons, including the phone icon.

3. A user's finger gesture chooses another app.

4. The app's interface comes up, all the while not dropping the call. The interface includes a "switch application icon" only when a phone call is occurring.

5. The user performs a finger gesture on the switch application icon, taking the user back to the phone interface.

There are also dependent claims that extend this concept in various ways. For example, the switch application icon could appear in the menu of application icons only when a phone call is underway. The menu icon or button could also simultaneously activate the speaker function, so the user can watch the screen and still hear the person.

Psychological advantage

You have to admire the craft of the lawyers on this one. Although the main claim is quite specific, it manages to nail down the steps in just broad enough a way to make to clumsy for a competitor to work around. There might be non-infringing ways to do something similar. Displaying a list of app names instead of icons during the phone call might be different enough. Having the switch app icon always there but dimmed when there is no phone call could be another way out.

But the point of such an application isn't to make it impossible for an Android competitor to offer an equivalent vital feature. After all, how often do you find it necessary to use an app in the middle of a phone call? The point is to force other companies to implement the feature in a way that is clumsy, inelegant or cumbersome. Scrolling through a list of names rather than a list of icons looks bad. And looks mean a lot when the subject is marketing consumer electronics.

The more rough edges Apple can force into Android and the more it can make other manufacturers omit functions -- the HTC case is just one example, and Apple has many more lawsuits running -- the more Apple can position the iPhone and iPad as the elegant and desirable consumer choices.

Whether this patent, the recent location services one, or others granted since getting into court with competitors, Apple continues to harvest a collection of legal clubs that can keep other handset manufacturers tripping time after time. It has yet to raise all these clubs in court, but it could -- and probably will in time.

Will that ultimately knock Android off the market? No. But the tactics could further force other vendors to focus on lower margin business, preserving the profit feeding grounds for Apple.

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    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.

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