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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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By Boze on 6/7/2012 10:21:19 PM , Rating: 5
Frankly, I've watched Apple's patent litigation with aloof amusement, but now I'm at the point where I'm actually offended at their arrogance.

Intel supplies all the chips (and motherboards if I'm not mistaken) for Apple's desktop line. Samsung supplies most of the displays and SOCs for the i-devices. I suggest Intel & Samsung join forces and simply stop selling their products to Apple.

I would even go so far as say break your contracts, pay the penalties for doing so, and watch how fast Apple is brought to heel due to the lack of chip / display manufacturing capacity of their own.




By ritualm on 6/7/2012 11:19:16 PM , Rating: 2
Breaking supply contracts simply because your customer is suing you is akin to cutting off the hand that feeds you.


By Boze on 6/8/2012 4:38:07 AM , Rating: 3
Samsung will be just fine without Apple. So will Intel. Apple's desktop marketshare is pathetic and no one I know of is overly concerned about Thunderbolt, nor should be. USB 4.0 will be out long before Thunderbolt gains any significant market penetration.


By leviathan05 on 6/8/2012 8:44:58 AM , Rating: 3
Seeing as how Intel developed Thunderbolt, it wouldn't be an issue.


By Boze on 6/8/2012 12:07:57 PM , Rating: 2
Except Apple doesn't feed Samsung.

Samsung is massive conglomerate. They make everything from wide-screen displays to washing machines. Would they take a loss of profit? Yeah. Would it be worth it to see Apple come crawling back with their tail between their legs? You're damn well right it would be.

I don't have much love for either company, but I have a lot less for Apple. Americans, traditionally, have been innovators in both design and technology. Apple innovates in design, but sucks balls at doing anything technologically.

Apple occasionally even goes backward (one-button mouse?? what idiot thought that was a good idea).


By ritualm on 6/8/2012 5:08:58 PM , Rating: 2
Samsung makes money selling components to Apple. Apple sells more iPads and iPhones in the market = greater demand for Samsung components = profit.

It also turns out that Samsung is one of the very few companies able to deliver what Apple needs in very large quantities.

You are seeing this too simply. The world does not operate in black and white. You really should start using your head more instead of what is a simple knee-jerk reaction to something unpleasant.


By Boze on 6/8/2012 10:18:20 PM , Rating: 2
Now you're arguing moral philosophy.

In every business class I took at university, moral and ethical responsibility is stressed, even in my marketing classes.

What happens in reality though? Those ethics blurbs get tossed right out the window as soon as most business majors get into the "real" world. Occasionally you'll have someone with some guts who'll actually do the right thing, like Cynthia Cooper (also from my alma mater, Mississippi State University, so I guess our professors are doing something right), who does see the world in black and white and does the right thing.

Apple has been given plenty of chances by plenty of judges to clean up their act. And they aren't the only guilty party when it comes to overly aggressive patent protection on ridiculous patents, either. But they're definitely the most prominent in America right now.

"You are seeing this too simply" are the words of those who are used to backdoor dealings and too much compromise in order to achieve their goals. I'm sure when Nazi officers objected to tossing all those Jews in the oven, their superiors said the exact same thing to them... "Klaus... Klaus... you are zeeeing zees tooooo zimmply..." Yeah... the repeated anthem of someone who lacks moral conviction.


By tecknurd on 6/7/2012 11:36:43 PM , Rating: 1
A kid would choose the cut-n-dry approach by saying to Samsung and Intel, "Drop your contracts with Apple." The adult will choose the shy and aloof approach. It is kind a funny when we are adults, we are too afraid to attempt the cut-n-dry approach to solve a problem. Age sometimes makes us stupid.

I do agree that Samsung and Intel should drop contracts with Apple. This will not happen because Apple is the main consumer of Samsung and Intel products. The cut-n-dry approach will teach Apple a lesson. Apple is a jerk and an pompous ass.

I like Mac OS X, but that is as far as I would go about liking Apple's products.


By Boze on 6/8/2012 4:41:35 AM , Rating: 2
A kid? No, anyone with morals and a ball sack who's tired of being threatened by a company with a culture of arrogance and elitism.

Intel and Samsung could crush Apple like a bug, if they'd just grow a pair and do it. Apple could spend that $100 billion developing their own chips and building its own fabrication plant.

And spending the next five to ten years trying to catch back up to where they currently are. Speaking as an Intel shareholder, I'd rather take a stock loss and see Apple brought to heel for their audacity.


By Targon on 6/8/2012 8:03:19 AM , Rating: 2
If AMD has problems being competitive in the CPU field, then Apple has NO hope of doing it. Apple does not INVENT, they take the inventions of others and put it in a nice package.

The vast majority of things in the iPhone were present in the old Palm devices, but implemented better. Using a finger instead of a stylus when other touch screens already allowed the use of a finger for example is NOT being terribly innovative. Running apps on a mobile device...didn't Palm have that market cornered before the iPhone came out? These are just SOME examples, but it is pretty pathetic how little Apple has really "invented".

I really wish Palm had a decent marketing team/budget, because the Palm Pre, with all its problems, WAS far more innovative. Gesture area to eliminate dedicated home or back buttons for example is far more elegant than the current designs from just about any smartphone maker.


By siberus on 6/8/2012 10:33:04 AM , Rating: 2
quote:
If AMD has problems being competitive in the CPU field, then Apple has NO hope of doing it. Apple does not INVENT, they take the inventions of others and put it in a nice package.


Apple could always buy AMD and solve their cash problem. It would probably go a long way towards making them more competitive with intel. Not that i would want them to be the ones to buy AMD.


By ShinySteelRobot on 6/9/2012 6:42:11 AM , Rating: 2
Apple could easily buy Intel. Apple's market capitalization is 4 times Intel's market cap. If they had to, they could do a hostile takeover.

However, it's vanishingly unlikely that either Apple or Intel will go on the offensive against the other.


By Cheesew1z69 on 6/9/2012 4:42:20 PM , Rating: 2
quote:
If they had to, they could do a hostile takeover.
LOL


By drwho9437 on 6/10/2012 1:51:53 PM , Rating: 2
That is an anti-trust lawsuit in the making... Abuse of effective monopoly power. Better to complete your contract but make them pay retail for parts afterward, no volume discount, it would cripple them in the short term, but from Samsung point of view it would just let another company into the flash business. From Intel's point of view it would lead to more ARM products they fear. Where does Apple use Intel, just laptops... it isn't their largest business...


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