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  (Source: Apple)
The Ultrabook category could potentially be killed off or diminished by Apple lawsuits

[Update: Apple's patent appears invalid due to prior art -- Sony Corp. (TYO:6758) released a teardrop laptop in 2004, the Sony VAIO X505.]

Apple, Inc. (AAPL) has brought chaos to the smartphone market, with a slew of lawsuits which essentially seek to ban all of its top smartphone competitors products.  According to Apple, all of its competitors are ripping off its technology.

Now Apple may be preparing to bring that same brand of litigious chaos to the world of personal computer, thanks to its victory in convinced the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to allow it to patent the design of its MacBook Air (MBA) case.  Apple was granted U.S. Design Patent D661,296 this week.

I. Nearly Every Ultrabook is in Violation

Very clever in its working, Apple's new intellectual property jewel is carefully crafted to place nearly every one of its competitors designs in violation, via making its claim very general and wide.

The patent covers claims exclusive ownership to thin teardrop/wedge-shaped notebook computers.  At first glance many of its competitors Ultrabooks would appear to be in violation of this patent.  In other words, with this patent, Apple appears to be well along the way to having the legal firepower necessary to obtain a ban all competitors lightweight laptops.

Among them:

Samsung's Series 5 Ultrabook Convertible

Samsung Series 5

ASUSTek Computer Inc.'s (TPE:2357) Transformer Book


Acer, Inc.'s (TPE:2353) Aspire S7 Series

Acer Aspire S7
[Image Source: Pocket Lint]

 
Hewlet Packard Comp.'s (HPQ) Spectre XT
Spectre XT black
Dell, Inc. (DELL) XPS 13


II. Patenting Fundamental Physics 

There's a reason why all of these laptops are teardrop and/or wedge shaped.  Given the size of USB ports and the size necessary for the hinge, there's no real other possible design that would allow these laptops to achieve the kind of thiness and light weight that the Ultrabook spec demands.

Now one thought might be that the USPTO merely granted Apple a narrow patent on its MacBook Air design.  But Apple's patent makes it explicitly clear that it's claiming a very wide exclusive rights to produce thin, wedge shaped laptops.  It says that size, hinge design, etc. are irrelevant.  It says that the back can have "any contour or shape" and still infringe.

Apple patent
Apple's patent is very tricking in its claim, designed to place nearly every ultrabook design on the market in infringement. [Image Source: USPTO via The Verge]

In other words, if the USPTO read the patent, they had to have recognized exactly how wide a design ownership they were granting Apple.

III. What's Next?

A couple important things to bear in mind.  Apple hasn't sued anybody -- yet.  But it now has the ammo to do so, and could potentially gain a monopoly on ultrathin notebooks, if it chooses to pursue lawsuits against all of its computer making rivals.  HP has already pledged to defend its design against potential litigation.

Apple could be fearful of the damage to its reputation that requesting a ban on all rival Ultrabook designs might have.  But it has shown little such fears in the smartphone market, so image may not be enough to convince Apple to avoid seeking bans.

Likewise, fundamental physics (hinge design) and universal standards (USB port size) seem to dictate no way around Apple's design, hence the patent seems highly questionable.  But for better or worse the USPTO has decided that Apple should have it.

No one is questioning that Apple pioneered the Ultrathin category with its MacBook Air.  While Dell's Envy launched not long after, it featured a more traditional flat design and hence was more constrained in size, weight, and specs.  But the question is whether Apple gets to have a monopoly because it got their first and because the laws of physics (and standards) dictate few alternatives.  That may be an issue that is pressed in court, if Apple's swelling legal team and history of looking to litigate rather than compete are any indication.

Update 1 June 7, 2012:

Well if Apple does sue anyone, it will have a tough case to make.  Get a load of Sony's VAIO X505 launched in 2004.  Turns out Apple wasn't even the first to pioneer this market -- Sony was the first (to our knowledge) ultrathin maker.

Sony's design clearly is in violation of Apple's patent -- but it came first.  That means Apple's appears highly likely to invalid.  In a sense, its wideness -- a gambit to ensure everyone infringes, may prove its downfall.

Sony Vaio X505
[Image Source: Notebook Review]
Sony Vaio X505
[Image Source: Image Shack]

It should be interesting to see how this plays out, if this goes to court.

Source: USPTO via SBNation [PDF]



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This article is over a month old, voting and posting comments is disabled

one addendum to sometimes, "first to file" comment
By sweetca on 6/7/2012 5:09:45 PM , Rating: 2
Patents must be novel and non-obvious to survive attack. If Sony sold thousands of those laptops, then apples design would be both obvious and non-novel, and would this likely fail in court. Patent office can't research everything in existence, they would need tens of thousands of employees, so they wait for a challenge and then grant the patent. If someone missed a challenge, they can sue in court.

Cut the Patent office some slack.




By ritualm on 6/7/2012 5:46:25 PM , Rating: 2
No, it isn't. The US patent system is a disaster, and it urgently needs to be fixed.


By frozentundra123456 on 6/7/2012 5:48:48 PM , Rating: 3
So basically you are saying it is OK not to do your job. Just do a half a**ed job and let someone else sort it out by going to court. Never mind the huge legal expenses and long delays of a possibly important product.

I could understand how something could slip through for some very esoteric or trivial patent that would not really affect anyone. But if the patent official was not smart enough or well trained enough to understand the potential ramifications of this, and make a more responsible decision, he should lose his job.


By sweetca on 6/7/2012 9:34:53 PM , Rating: 2
That is not at all what I said. I question why I am even bothering to respond. I do not mean to appear to be condescending, but some of these arguments are like religious dogma. One’s mind is usually made up, and contrary arguments are dismissed out of hand. Here goes anyway:

Approximately 500,000 patents are filed with just the U.S. Patent office each year (http://www.inventionstatistics.com/Number_of_Paten... Some of these patents can number 30 or more pages, which may include some incredibly complex and detailed schematics, formulas, diagrams, etc...

Would you hazard a guess as to how many people would have to work at the patent office to go over each and every one of these patents methodically? We are talking about approximately 1800 patents a day, which number anywhere from 10 to 100 pages on average. And this is not light reading guys. Here is a 21 page patent application for a simple outrigger device (http://patimg1.uspto.gov/.piw?Docid=6746448&idkey=...

Do you realize that the patent office would need to hire people who possess a varied amount of highly technical skills, such as computer engineers, chemists, programmers, and other individuals holding highly specialized knowledge to be able to determine the "absolute" merits of a patent?

Then after all this due diligence and exhaustive exploration, the patent examiner would then need to hand it off to an individual versed in foreign patent law to consider the ramifications on a global scale… I don’t even want to get into this.

The patent offices' budget would likely need to be increased 1000 fold to accomplish what many on this board believe their job should accomplish. (Let us not even discuss the resulting political drama that would ensue with cries of out-of-control government spending and over-expansion of the Federal government… Blah Blah)

This entire exercise is both naive and incredibly unrealistic.
The current patent timeline from filing to grant is around 3 years ((http://otc.rutgers.edu/faculty/patent-timeline.php...
So, unless more resources are committed to the U.S. patent office, this number would likely increase dramatically.

And just ask yourself a simple question
If you were an incredibly talented computer engineer, would you rather proof other people’s inventions all day for 80K a year (http://www.glassdoor.com/Salary/US-Patent-and-Trad... or would you prefer to develop the inventions yourself?

I could go further, but at this point I believe one can see the practical arguments against what many here believe the patent office should and could do.

That is what I was "basically" trying to say.


By frozentundra123456 on 6/7/2012 11:34:40 PM , Rating: 2
I dont see where any "religious dogma" is involved at all. What a totally ridiculous comment. I work in a research setting, and I have read patents. I realize that they can be long and hard to understand. However, I fail to see how one could not give careful consideration to a patent by one of the best known corporations in America, a corporation that has a reputation for trying to use patents to deter legitimate competition. I mean, have they never heard of Apple or ultrabooks?


By sweetca on 6/12/2012 1:20:53 PM , Rating: 2
It was an analogy...


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