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Apple's Slide-To-Unlock Patent Has Some Big Loopholes

Ah, the technology sturm und drang that only an obnoxious patent can conjure. Last week, when Apple (AAPL) received a patent on the slide-to-unlock feature on the iPhone and iPad, a common reaction was that the company just got another legal weapon to use against Google (GOOG) and the Android operating system ... and even Microsoft (MSFT) Windows 8. Suddenly, all competing smartphones were supposed to be in danger of having Apple grind them into the ground.

Everyone should calm down. Yes, the patent clearly covers Android, although probably not Windows 8. But it's unclear whether these Apple patents could withstand legal challenge. And there are many potentially slick ways to design around the patent on slide-to-unlock, anyway.

What the patent actually says
As often happens with patents, people pay attention to the abstract, which is a mistake because it doesn't receive legal protection. Only the claims do. Here's the foundational first independent claim of the patent:

A method of unlocking a hand-held electronic device, the device including a touch-sensitive display, the method comprising: detecting a contact with the touch-sensitive display at a first predefined location corresponding to an unlock image; continuously moving the unlock image on the touch-sensitive display in accordance with movement of the contact while continuous contact with the touch screen is maintained, wherein the unlock image is a graphical, interactive user-interface object with which a user interacts in order to unlock the device; and unlocking the hand-held electronic device if the moving the unlock image on the touch-sensitive display results in movement of the unlock image from the first predefined location to a predefined unlock region on the touch-sensitive display.
Even though there are some additional so-called dependent claims, if you carefully read the independent claim above, it gives the basic ground rules of whether some other unlocking feature is covered by this patent or not:
  • The device is hand-held or portable.
  • An unlock image is at a predefined location on a touch screen.
  • The user contacts the screen at the unlock image and pulls that image along to some other predefined area of the screen.
Android's current slide-to-unlock feature works the same way, and so would be covered by the patent.
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Prior art?
Although some assumed that this patent was Something New And Big, Apple already had a slide-to-unlock patent. Why pursue another patent? That's an interesting question. Apple appears to be trying to cover a weakness in that previous patent.

As patent blogger Florian Mueller noted, a Dutch court ruled that the European equivalent of the '849 patent was obvious, and so, invalid. Swedish handset manufacturer Neonode already had implement an unlocking gesture (though not moving an image from one point of the screen to another). In addition, Samsung found potential prior art -- previous evidence of a concept in a patent -- going back to 1992.

I agree with Mueller that someone could mount a serious challenge to the first patent as it exists, pulling Android out of another hot water bath. Apple wants to leave no room. But an attack on both the patents might be unnecessary.

Pesky details
Some comments have noted that Windows 8 might be safe because of the extensive cross-licensing that Apple and Microsoft do. Early in the following video, you can see how the screen unlock works. You touch the image at the bottom and slide it up.

Clearly that's covered by the Apple patent, right? Nope.

  1. There is no unlock image.
  2. There are no predefined spots on the screen.
  3. Therefore, users can't drag a specific image from region A to region B.
Yes, Microsoft has managed without a lot of trouble to create an unlock system that completely circumvents the patent, whether it's on a handheld device or not.

The power of innovation
When it comes to patents, details are everything. And details are usually easy to innovate around. Google is already doing it in the latest version of Android with facial recognition unlocking. It's even more elegant than dragging your finger across a screen, and it additionally acts as a form of security.

Even without something so advanced, it would be easy, as Microsoft showed, to find other ways to accomplish the same intent. For example you could have a runway strip, where you move your finger across a path that lights as you pass. Get from point A to point B, and the device unlocks. There's no infringement of the Apple patent, because you're not dragging an image along.

You could require a user to touch two points on the screen and tap a third. Have them trace a geometric pattern or touch a point and hold it until a progress indicator moved between two specific points.

In other words, the patent is trivial and getting around it is equally easy. Sometimes all it takes is about two minutes worth of thought -- which does raise the question of whether the invention you're trying to maneuver around was enough of an advance to warrant a patent in the first place.

Image: Flickr user Oyvind Solstad.

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