COMMENTARY Apple (AAPL) has raised bludgeoning competitors with patents on key technologies to a fine art. (Just ask Samsung.) A reissue of a patent originally dating back to 1998 -- and that Apple got from Xerox (XRX) -- has delivered into CEO Tim Cook's hands some serious, and scary, potential control over location-based services. If you thought that Google (GOOG), Samsung, HTC, and others were already depressed over the legal success Apple has had in fighting Android, it's now officially worse.
Even more, it could bring some important activities of other companies, such as Facebook and Foursquare, under Apple's purview -- which is another way of saying that Apple might be able to tell these companies to pay up if they wanted to use location services. Given that location-based service is one key to the mobile ambitions of virtually everyone else in the industry, the patent could give Apple control over some hot parts of mobile technology, including location-based innovation in advertising, social networks, mapping, flash deals, and augmented reality. And Apple has proven that it's perfectly willing to use legal muscle to deal with competitors.
Location, location, location
The patent that issued yesterday, RE42,927, is actually a reissue of a patent that Xerox received in 2000 and filed for in 1998. According to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, Apple received ownership of the patent on December 17, 2009. (Yes, once again Xerox came up with a cool idea only to see Apple do something with it, as it did with GUIs and mice.)
In other words, this patent is old enough to predate much of what is now happening in both mobile and social media. Even worse -- for Apple's competitors -- it's broad. Here's the all-important first independent claim that helps set the scope for what the patent might legally cover:
A location information system that displays location specific information, the location information system, comprising: a receiver that receives location identification information from at least one site specific object identifying a location.Iadd., where the at least one site specific object is a beacon.Iaddend.; and a transceiver that transmits the location identification information to a distributed network and that receives the location specific information about the specified location from the distributed network based on the location identification information, wherein the location specific information provides information corresponding to the location.Don't let the odd Iadd/Iaddend text throw you. It seems to show the difference between this newest version of the patent and the previous one. Breaking it down, here's what the claim covers:
- The system will display information that is specific to the location the device is in. That could mean text, video, sound, or images. There is no restriction on what the information conveys, so anything from something informative in a visual display to a two-for-one burger special would seem to be covered.
- The device has a location information system that receives location information from at least one object that specifies the location of the site where the device user is. The patent description makes it clear that this could include GPS signals from space or a barcode plastered on a building. Because "receiver" is another broad term, you could include GPS radios in cell phones or a camera and software combo that would obtain a two-dimension QR barcode. Apple broadened the language to include GPS systems.
- A transceiver (another general term) sends the location information over a distributed network like the Internet to some unspecified destination and, in return, gets location-specific information in return.
Once the information is back, the device can presumably do whatever it wants with it, whether display the data separately, incorporate it into something else, or even toss it.
This patent is so basic that it would be hard to get around it. Just about any location-based system at its heart has to transmit a local location and receive information in return. That leaves the question of what Apple will decide to do ... and to whom.