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Understanding why Google needs Motorola's patents

Written by Rich Fiscus (Google+) @ 19 Aug 2011 9:29 User comments (8)

Understanding why Google needs Motorola's patents Unless you've been away from planet Earth since Monday, you should have almost certainly heard about Google's big announcement on Monday that they are buying Motorola Mobility. You probably also know the reason they felt compelled to spend more than $12 billion dollars was a bundle of patents that came with the deal.
What you may be wondering is why a company like Google, with so many innovations under their belt, needs to buy patents. Shouldn't they already be collecting patents daily in the course of normal business?

In fact the answer is no, and that's the not so secret reality of the software patent game. Software patents usually have little or nothing to do with software.

Let's look at one of the most significant software patents in the mobile OS world. US Patent 7,966,578 (full patent documentation below) covers one of the most elementary features of every modern touch interface - moving the display by swiping.

A computer-implemented method, for use in conjunction with a portable multifunction device with a touch screen display, comprises displaying a portion of page content, including a frame displaying a portion of frame content and also including other content of the page, on the touch screen display. An N-finger translation gesture is detected on or near the touch screen display. In response, the page content, including the displayed portion of the frame content and the other content of the page, is translated to display a new portion of page content on the touch screen display. An M-finger translation gesture is detected on or near the touch screen display, where M is a different number than N. In response, the frame content is translated to display a new portion of frame content on the touch screen display, without translating the other content of the page.


Since this is a process patent, it is supposed to to lay out not just what the input and output is, but also what happens in between. Can you find that in the patent description?

Don't feel bad if you couldn't. In fact almost the entirety of the process is in the word "translate." This patent doesn't describe an invention. It merely tells you where an invention will fit into the process of swiping.

In the electronics world, this sort of thing is known as a black box. By definition, you don't know (or care) how it works. All you need to know about a black box is when the input is X, the output will be Y.

There's nothing wrong with black boxes. They're useful when you need to figure out how to do something without an in depth understanding of every component involved.

But black boxes aren't supposed to be patentable. The trade off for patent protection is providing a blueprint for others to build your invention when it falls into the public domain. A black box is not a blueprint.

Nevertheless, this sort of patent is currently legal under US law, and it happens to be owned by Apple. If you want to distribute software which uses swipe gestures to move objects on a touchscreen you will have to license it.

Apple would prefer not to license this patent to anyone, and why should they? Refusing to license it cripples the competition. Any potential license fees pale in comparison to the money Apple could make by cornering the smartphone and tablet markets.

That's where Motorola's patents come into the picture. Prior to Google's announcement, Motorola was already involved in a patent lawsuit against Apple. Google is betting on the threat of Motorola's patents forcing Apple, Microsoft, and various other companies to agree to a cease fire in the smartphone patent war.

Once US and European regulators approve the sale, the real work begins. At that point Google will have to sit down with dozens of companies to negotiate. It could take weeks, months, or even years for the dust to settle.

The good news for Google is they have the kind of cash reserves required for protracted legal battles. The bad news is they might need it.

Patent For Swipe Gesture On Mobile Devices

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8 user comments

119.8.2011 10:51

Thank you so much I needed the perfect example of what is wrong with our system of patents and I now have one. I sure hope that it will change and for the better.

219.8.2011 13:04

Don't hold your breath, Apple was smart and made political contributions. Microsoft had the correct attitude that they shouldn't have to. Look where it got them!

Google makes political contributions by the truck full, they have a better chance. Most of these patents are total garbage designed only to prevent competition unfairly. Personally I think they are total crap, people have been touching monitors for years to show pwopl where to move things.

Fix the politicians and coruption and the rest of the system will fall into place. Oh yeah, you have to get rid of a lot of lawyers too, after almost all politicians are lawyers.

This message has been edited since its posting. Latest edit was made on 19 Aug 2011 @ 13:06

319.8.2011 21:23

Quote:
Apple would prefer not to license this patent to anyone, and why should they? Refusing to license it cripples the competition. Any potential license fees pale in comparison to the money Apple could make by cornering the smartphone and tablet markets.
Actually Apple wants to license the tech to keep competition in the market so they themselves do not become the target of anti-trust/monopoly regulators. Much more profitable then how Microsoft gave Apple cash grants in the 90s to keep them in the PC business.
This message has been edited since its posting. Latest edit was made on 19 Aug 2011 @ 21:26

420.8.2011 12:52

Originally posted by Azuran:
Quote:
Apple would prefer not to license this patent to anyone, and why should they? Refusing to license it cripples the competition. Any potential license fees pale in comparison to the money Apple could make by cornering the smartphone and tablet markets.
Actually Apple wants to license the tech to keep competition in the market so they themselves do not become the target of anti-trust/monopoly regulators. Much more profitable then how Microsoft gave Apple cash grants in the 90s to keep them in the PC business.

I'll agree they should want to do that, but I've seen no signs they actually do. On the other hand there is lots of evidence they want to shut out anyone they see as serious competition.

Rich Fiscus
@Vurbal on Twitter
AfterDawn Staff Writer

520.8.2011 16:05

I thought they were licensing it. Perhaps I'm mistaking what the swipe function is. For example on my WP7 I switch from the start menu to the app list by pushing my finger on the screen to the side. If this is not what swiping is then I retract my previous statement and apologize since it is obvious that sufficient competition exists without having to license the tech.

620.8.2011 21:33

Originally posted by Azuran:
I thought they were licensing it. Perhaps I'm mistaking what the swipe function is. For example on my WP7 I switch from the start menu to the app list by pushing my finger on the screen to the side. If this is not what swiping is then I retract my previous statement and apologize since it is obvious that sufficient competition exists without having to license the tech.

You have to understand the history of all these lawsuits. There has been a patent cold war going on for years in the mobile phone industry. Technically everybody has been infringing on everybody else's patents, but those patents existed as a defensive measure. You won't sue me because I can sue you right back. Apple took the same stance until Android started getting too popular and then they went after all the major Android phone vendors. Samsung is their biggest target right now because their mobile products are the biggest direct competitor to Apple's.

Microsoft is also infringing, but Apple doesn't want to sue them for a few reasons. Like Google, Microsoft has significant cash reserves. Also, a patent war between those companies would be more likely to result in actual patent reform. But most importantly, Windows Phone simply isn't a threat right now, so there's no need to do it.

Rich Fiscus
@Vurbal on Twitter
AfterDawn Staff Writer

720.8.2011 22:22

That makes sense. Thanks for the insight.

821.8.2011 0:11

It's also worth noting this is the difference between Apple's patent lawsuits and Microsoft's. Microsoft knows how bad their position is so they're suing for patent royalties from every Android phones and they're keeping the dollar amount low enough so they won't kill the golden goose. Apple is suing to get the import of Android phones banned.


Rich Fiscus
@Vurbal on Twitter
AfterDawn Staff Writer

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