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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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RE: Too late?
By muy on 6/8/2012 9:30:21 AM , Rating: 2
can patent bureaus be sewed for granting ridiculous patents ? like for incompetence, negligence etc ?

companies could maybe make a lot of money by sewing those patent bureaus into oblivion or until they get their act together.

a bit like 'the court of xxx has decided that bureau yyy has granted an unlawful patent that let to financial losses for companies a, b, ... , z amounting to a loss of income calculated at xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx us $ which is to be payed by company xxx and bureau yyy to companies a-z'

a ruling like that would prevent companies to try and get a patent on something like 'we have a patent on using a form of energy as a way to power devices' and would force the patent bureau to do it's work properly (search for that prior art etc..) or face law suits that are assured to force the patent bureau into bankruptcy.


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