Print 114 comment(s) - last by StoveMeister.. on Jun 14 at 3:02 AM

  (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 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
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
If they had to, they could do a hostile takeover.

"A politician stumbles over himself... Then they pick it out. They edit it. He runs the clip, and then he makes a funny face, and the whole audience has a Pavlovian response." -- Joe Scarborough on John Stewart over Jim Cramer

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