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MicroUnity was a major pioneer in the field of mediaprocessing. Unfortunately, it was ahead of its time and was killed by power and cost of media chips on the current process. Now its reduced to filing litigation against those who adopted similar designs on smaller processes.  (Source: MicroUnity)
Company is also suing Palm, Nokia, Motorola, HTC, LG, Qualcomm, Spring, and Texas Instruments

Apple's legal campaign against HTC has garnered a lot of attention.  It's widely perceived that Apple is trying to pick off smaller companies that make the Android handsets to kill the mobile operating system's momentum.  Apple's litigation centers around certain mobile hardware and interface patents Apple owns, such as a patent on mobile object oriented graphics, a patent on interrupt-based mobile processor undervolting, and a patent touch screen unlocking. 

Now Apple finds the tables have turned on it; a small company has filed suit against it, claiming that its devices infringe on a variety of hardware patents.  MicroUnity Systems Engineering is a small private company based in Santa Clara, California.  The company is adopting an equal opportunity approach, though, and is also suing 21 other companies, including Google, AT&T, Palm, Nokia, Motorola, HTC, LG, Qualcomm, Samsung, Spring, and Texas Instruments

The company may sound like a patent monger, but there's more to the story -- the firm actually was once home to some of the brightest engineering talent in the industry.  The company was founded by John Moussouris and Craig Hansen, two of the engineers who developed the now famous MIPS CPU microarchitecture.  The company functions primarily as a research and development firm and has a wealth of intellectual property.  In 2005 it received a $300M USD from Dell and Intel in a suit over some of its IP.  A similar suit against AMD and Sony over their GPUs was settled in 2007.

Microunity says that media processing technology inside handsets like the iPhone 3GS, iPod Touch, Motorola Droid, Palm Pre, Google Nexus One, and the Nokia N900 steals from its patented work.  MicroUnity says the 22 parties named in the suit violated the following patents it holds:

  • U.S. Patent No. 5,737,547, "System for Placing Entries of an Outstanding Processor Request into a Free Pool After the Request Is Accepted by a Corresponding Peripheral Device."

  • U.S. Patent No. 5,742,840, "General Purpose, Multiple Precision Parallel Operation, Programmable Media Processor."

  • U.S. Patent No. 5,794,061, "General Purpose, Multiple Precision Parallel Operation, Programmable Media Processor."

  • U.S. Patent No. 6,006,318 C1, "General Purpose, Dynamic Partitioning, Programmable Media Processor."

  • U.S. Patent No. 6,427,190, "Configurable Cache Allowing Cache-Type and Buffer-Type Access."

  • U.S. Patent No. 6,725,356 C1, "System with Wide Operand Architecture, and Method."

  • U.S. Patent No. 7,213,131, "Programmable Processor and Method for Partitioned Group Element Selection Operation."

  • U.S. Patent No. 7,216,217 B2, "Programmable Processor with Group Floating-Point Operations."

  • U.S. Patent No. 7,260,708 B2, "Programmable Processor and Method for Partitioned Group Shift."

  • U.S. Patent No. 7,353,367 B2, "System and Software for Catenated Group Shift Instruction."

  • U.S. Patent No. 7,509,366 B2, "Multiplier Array Processing System with Enhanced Utilization at Lower Precision."

  • U.S. Patent No. 7,653,806 B2, "Method and Apparatus for Performing Improved Group Floating-Point Operations."

  • U.S. Patent No. 7,660,972 B2, "Method and Software for Partitioned Floating-Point Multiply-Add Operation."

  • U.S. Patent No. 7,660,973 B2, "System and Apparatus for Group Data Operations."

Microunity developed technology in a number of fields including semiconductor processing, system design, chip architecture, software algorithms -- a rarity in the industry.  The company pioneered the mediaprocessor business, but ultimately saw its designs flop as at the time they consumed to much power and were too expensive.

The company's overreaching history earned it the nickname 
MicroLunacy in Silicon Valley.  While it was responsible for much innovation the flop of its mediaprocessors sent it reeling into consolidation.  The staff shrunk to 200 engineers and the company's chief business (until the patent litigation launched) was to sell a CAD tool that it sold in 1999.

One cannot help but appreciate the irony in Apple's case, but it's also interesting to note that MicroUnity, once an ambitious pioneer, has been reduced to trying to make a living off litigation.  

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This is one of the rare occasions...
By dgingeri on 3/23/2010 11:09:44 AM , Rating: 3
This is one of the rare occasions where the patent and legal systems are actually being used for their intended purpose.

This company developed these techniques a while ago, but were unable to capitalize on them because the rest of technology hadn't caught up. Later, when the manufacturing had caught up, other companies remembered these techniques, which MicroUnity had developed, and used them. Since MicroUnity came up with them, they should get money for other people using the ideas.

These ideas aren't simple ideas that others would have come up with on their own. These are complicated techniques that took time and effort to work out. The engineers who developed them deserve the credit. I somehow doubt any of the engineers will get any money from the law suit, but the company that owns the patent should get it. There is no doubt there.

Many of Apple's recent patents are garbage, though. They have been things that people have done for a long while, like undervolting processors, or things that really are no-brainers, like using a touchscreen to unlock a phone or device. Apple doesn't deserve any money for those patents. they should just be declared invalid.

It especially irks me that companies that called MicroUnity MicroLunacy are the ones that are now profiting from MicroUnity's techniques. That's just grade school behavior.

RE: This is one of the rare occasions...
By wiz220 on 3/23/2010 12:08:52 PM , Rating: 3
Later, when the manufacturing had caught up, other companies remembered these techniques

Remembered, or created independently? This is one of the main questions people are asking here.

RE: This is one of the rare occasions...
By Lerianis on 3/23/2010 12:12:37 PM , Rating: 2
I'm honestly betting on 'created independently'. I recently was writing down ideas for stuff on paper, and someone told me "Wait a minute.... I think that thing already exists!" Took me online... yep, it already existed!

So, if I can come up with an idea for a product that ALREADY EXISTS and I didn't know it existed.. then a company with TONS of people definitely could do that.

By tmouse on 3/24/2010 8:18:02 AM , Rating: 2
That not necessarily true. It's a very common practice to reverse engineer an item for your own use. You just either hire an outside firm (there are several that specialize in this) or use a different company team (more risky). At the end you get a report worded in terms of general concepts of how it accomplishes the task and not the exact method and you give that to your team to jump start development. MANY projects actually prototype using the original devices and the prototype looks nothing like the desired end product (may be enormous and use boat loads of power for example), then you decide if it's worth it to RE the devices to accomplish your own goals. It's such a common practice the DMCA (piece of crap that it is) had to have exclusions to allow this common practice.

RE: This is one of the rare occasions...
By PandaBear on 3/23/2010 7:36:44 PM , Rating: 2
If you have ever taken any computer course, this thing is so obviously a pipelined architecture that everyone is teaching in school, back in the early 90s. Sun Sparc processor has this since the 90s as well, how can this be patented?

They picked the wrong target dude, these guys can easily just crush them out of legal fees.

By tmouse on 3/24/2010 8:07:58 AM , Rating: 2
I guess someone should have told Dell, Intel, AMD and Sony. They have played against the big boys and won before, sounds like they do their homework before they sue. On another note people seem to assume a company wakes up one morning and just files a law suit. Some of these cases follow years of negotiations with the companies involved. So in these cases many of these devices were probably just released and shortly thereafter they were notified about the potential patent infringements and now it's gotten to the point where the companies are getting sued. Also most large companies either have or retain large patent law firms to look for prior art before they go forward, in many of these cases they either go forward with the belief the holders are gone or too poor to press the issue or they honestly believe their solutions are different enough. I really do not think the term patent troll applies here; to me a troll is a company that is formed JUST to harvest patents from those desperately in need of cash and then wait to catch potential infringers. I know for a fact Big blue has a huge legal division that just combs new inventions and patents looking for potential infringement. When the find it they generally have numerous patents (they have been #1 in patents for over a quarter of a century with over 4000 per year) and send a letter listing the patents along with a license agreement. They are usually reasonable with their licenses and their portfolio is a good revenue source for them. I am reasonably sure these other companies do the same so rarely are they completely unaware, it's in their own best interests to keep abreast of what's going on.

"Spreading the rumors, it's very easy because the people who write about Apple want that story, and you can claim its credible because you spoke to someone at Apple." -- Investment guru Jim Cramer

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