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Circuits were a "major milestone" in peer-reviewed research, allowed better multitasking

The Univ. of Wisconsin-Madison's Computer Science Department Professor Gundihar S. Sohi and his colleagues -- University of Toronto CS Professor Andreas Moshovos, former graduate student Scott Breach (who received his Ph.D in 1998), and Terani Vijaykumar (another former graduate student) -- in 1998 published a groundbreaking paper entitled "Data Dependence Speculation Apparatus for Parallel Processing Unit".

I. Professor Fights to Get Licensing on His Game-Changing Circuit-Tech

The paper layed out a piece of circuitry that allowed parallel tasks on a modern multiprocessor to be better scheduled, improving processing throughput and power efficiency.  More specifically, the circuit allows for a heurisitic where the processor learns from its mistakes in scheduling, getting smarter at balancing the loads for certain user profiles.

For the work, Professor Sohi in 2011 won the ACM-IEEE CS Eckert-Mauchly Award — "the computer architecture community's most prestigious award."  He and his co-authors also received a patent on the circuit -- U.S. Patent No. 5,781,752, filed for in 1996 and granted in 1998. 

Sohi multitasking
The work from the Univ. of Wisconsin team was groundbreaking when it was published in 1996-98. [Image Source: IEEE/ACM]

And yet, many in the semiconductor industry have fought tooth and nail to try to use the invention without paying for it.

The latest to borrow the technology without paying licensing fees is Apple, Inc. (AAPL).  Its A7 chip -- found aboard the iPhone 5S, iPad Air, and iPad mini with Retina display -- reportedly has predictive circuitry similar to that described in the patent. 

Apple A7
Apple A7
The Apple A7 -- the brains of the iPhone 5S -- is produced by Samsung Electronics.
[Image Source: iFixit (bottom), Cult of Mac (top)]

That circuitry is a crucial component in delivering the terrific battery life of these Apple devices, even in the face of high processing loads.

iPhone 5S

 

iPad Air



iPad Mini With Retina Display

Someone tipped off the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF) that the patented work might be being used without licensing.  WARF contacted Apple, but the mobile devicemaker reportedly refused to cooperate.  WARF testifies in its court filing:

Apple has stated that it is the policy of the company not to accept or consider proposals regarding licensing from outside entities like WARF for any purpose.
...
WARF is informed and believes, and on this basis alleges, that Apple has incorporated the technology of WARF's '752 patent into the A7 processor to achieve enhanced efficiency and performance. WARF now asks this Court to prevent Apple's unauthorized use of the '752 patent.

WARF is seeking monetary damages and an injunction preventing the sale of iOS that are non-compliant.

This is actually not the first major incident regarding the patent.  Intel Corp. (INTC) also integrated similar circuitry into its "Core 2 Duo Processor", which launched in 2006.  It subsequently refused licensing and was smacked by a suit from WARF.  In the eleventh hour, apparently sensing it was on the losing end of things, Intel caved. the company agreed in 2008 to license the award winning technology just before the case was set to go to trial.

It remains to be seen whether Apple chooses a similar path, or opts to fight.

II. Steal and Sue?

Apple has at times appeared more eager to sue than to compete.  It has been very aggressive in suing other OEMs like Samsung Electronics Comp., Ltd.(KRX:005935) (KRX:005930) trying to score punitive product bans in the U.S. and other regions. 

Apple v. Samsung
Apple has been fond of suing other gadgetmakers.  [Image Source: Gizmodo]

These attempts have largely proved futile, despite Apple winning a jury verdict against Samsung worth around $800M USDApple and Samsung are currently in court-ordered negotiations in a second case, which involves the 2012-era Galaxy S3, as well as the Galaxy Note and Note 2 phablets.

Much of Apple's intellectual property used in its lawsuits details multitouch gestures that were first published in peer-reviewed research.  For example, Professor Krueger developed and published papers on virtually equivalent pinch-to-zoom multi-touch technology almost 25 years prior to Apple producing its first multi-touch device (the iPhone). 
 
Early multitouch devices
Myron Krueger developed pinch-to-zoom [pictured] in the 1980s. [Image Source: Bill Buxton]

 
Much of this work went unpatented and the technology was not commercially available, hence when Fingerworks filed for patents on it in the 1990s, it faced little resistance.  Apple would go on to acquire Fingerworks and then claim it "invented" multitouch.

Apple has been forced to admit it was using others' technologies before.  Notably, Nokia Oyj. (HEX:NOK1V) sued it over multiple intellectual property "theft" claims back in 2009, which culminated in an agreement from Apple to pay licensing fees in 2011.

Late Apple cofounder and CEO Steven Paul "Steve" Jobs once famously stated:

Picasso had a saying - 'Good artists copy, great artists steal.' And we have always been shameless about stealing great ideas.

But sometimes if you steal, you have to pay in the end.

Sources: Apple Insider, Google Patents





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