Sorry Apple, you did not invent swipe to unlock

[This is an editorial/analysis piece.]

When I initially searched the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office database and Google Patents, I missed something very interesting in the war [1][2] between Apple, Inc. (AAPL) and Android's "Big Three" -- Google Inc.'s (GOOG)  new acquisition Motorola, HTC Corp. (TPE:2498), and Samsung Electronics Comp., Ltd. (KS:005930) -- regarding swipe-to-unlock intellectual property.  

Neonode Inc. (NEON) appears to be the first to patent this technology, holding a claim I missed.

I. Neonode Beat Apple to the Patent Punch by 3 Years

As I pointed out in an earlier piece, Neonode -- a small Swedish phone manufacturer -- was the first to deploy the technology commercially.  And it also appears to be the first to have patented swipe-to-unlock.

I initially missed this, as it was buried in U.S. Patent No. 8,095,879.

But there it is -- in "User interface for mobile handheld computer unit."  Fig. 11 and Fig. 12 (pg. 5).

Neonode patent
And the interface element is covered by Claim 12:

12. The computer readable medium of claim 1, wherein the user interface is characterised in, that an active application, function, service or setting is advanced one step by gliding the object along the touch sensitive area from left to right, and that the active application, function, service or setting is closed or backed one step by gliding the object along the touch sensitive area from right to left.

Now Neonode is perhaps not suing everyone because it kindly limited its own patent, writing

In the case that the patent was deemed non-novel at some point and redundant with existing drag-and-drop IP, Neonode attempts to strengthen it with a secondary claim:

12. The computer readable medium of claim 1, wherein the touch sensitive area is 2-3 inches in diagonal dimension.

What a novel notion -- a company narrowing its own patent to cover only what it actually has designed!  While we'll never know if this narrowing was intentional or inadvertent, either way.

Despite the apparent strength and broad scope of its patent, Neonode declined/missed its opportunity to try to cash in on its user interface innovation at the expense of stalling the mobile market with crippling lawsuits (as Apple is currently doing).

II. Is There a Difference Between These Patents?

Now let us review the matter at hand:
  1. Neonode filed for a patent on swipe to unlock 3 years before Apple did.
  2. Neonode's swipe to unlock gesture is identical to that found on the iPhone -- a fluid left-to-right motion.
  3. Apple is now suing people over the technology it "borrowed" (presumably without permission) from Neonode and applied for two patents -- U.S. Patent No. 7,657,849 and U.S. Patent No. 8,046,721 on.
Let me address a point of contention I received in an email.  Yes, Neonode's display is resistive (diodes-based) touch design, where as Apple's screen is capacitive touch.  But ultimately this does not have any major affect the algorithm, as we see it on the original iPhone.  And bear in mind, Apple is not patenting capacitive multi-touch.  Other people have already done that.  

Indeed Apple's patent doesn't even mention capacitive touch in its claims.  It claims the invention of the gesture on "a touch-sensitive display" (See Claim 1 of first patent) -- a term which encompasses both resistive and capacitive touch displays.

So is there any difference between Apple's claim and Neonode's?  

It would be tempting to state that there is some sort of graphical difference looking at the iPhone versus the Neonode n1, which featured the slide-to-unlock.  But the patents are ambiguous enough they don't confine themselves specific look to the unlock mechanism (that would be more appropriate for a design patent, anyhow).

So if the difference is not graphical, what is it?

Apple's algorithm appears to have two unique claims, compared to Neonode's.  But they're actually not unique at all.  Let's discuss why.

First it claims dragging a graphic.  But let's see -- this has been done for over two decades before the filing via the ubiquitous "drag and drop".

Apple's only other seemingly unique claims is that its algorithm mentions that if the finger is removed during the swipe gesture, before the end point is reached, to cancel the result.  But ultimately, the Neonode patent simply did mention this.  If you swipe halfway across the Neonode phone (reaching the middle diode) and stop, you can't just click the endpoint several seconds later.  Neonode's algorithm was less explicit, but it appears to have the same mechanism as Apple's.  (See videos below.)

Whereas Apple relied on the capacitive touch display to implement its "contact" detection (but does not mention in the patent exactly how it determines "contact"), Neonode used timing to determine contact.

Thus Apple and Neonode's patented claims are virtually identical, other than the graphics drag, which is covered via ubiquitous drag-and-drop prior art.  The difference?  Neonode filed three years before Apple.

Apple's patent applies to all screen sizes, so it in theory overlaps with Neonode's.  And even if it was narrowed to apply to large screen sizes, copying Neonode's UI innovation and then applying it to a larger screen does not seem novel or patentable

Again, don't try to debate this on the grounds of graphical look or the difference in touch technology, as the patents are both broad enough to not confine themselves to these finer points.  You're just making yourself look silly if you do this.

III. Apple's Patents are Completely Invalid

I have to admit; even I am taken aback by this development.  I thought Apple's patent to be overly obvious and covered by prior commercial work, but I did not expect Apple to have lifted a predecessor's patent so blatantly.

Perhaps I shouldn't have been.  Late Apple CEO and co-founder Steven P. Jobs famously bragged, "Picasso had a saying - 'Good artists copy, great artists steal.' And we have always been shameless about stealing great ideas."

In retrospect, I now think the evidence is compelling and overwhelming that Apple's patents on swipe-to-unlock are completely invalid.  If anyone owns this technology it is Neonode.  And Neonode has narrowed its scope of strengthened its potential litigation by declaring a second claim that the technology be applied to 2-3 inch devices.  Apple's iPhone is a 3.5" device, so Apple might be required to pay licensing fees, should Neonode sue, and should the patent be upheld.

Neonode n1
The Neonode n1 [Image Source: Engadget]

Hopefully the court/patent office should soon realize this, when they review the Neonode patent -- assuming a lack of bias and sufficient technical knowledge.  And let's hope they get it right this time around.

"If a man really wants to make a million dollars, the best way would be to start his own religion." -- Scientology founder L. Ron. Hubbard

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