Apple wins patent on key smartphone feature

Other software companies have incorporated the slide-to-unlock system, potentially leaving themselves open to lawsuits.

By Kim Peterson Oct 26, 2011 2:07PM
If you have a smartphone, you've probably used the slide-to-unlock feature to make a call or check your mail. This week, Apple (AAPL) won the patent for that feature.

Apple first applied for the patent in 2005 (you can read the patent here), long before the first iPhone was unveiled. The idea is simple: A device with a touch-sensitive display may be unlocked via gestures performed on the touch-sensitive display.

Apple co-founder Steve Jobs had a little more fun describing it in 2007: "To unlock the phone, I just take my finger and slide it across," he said in a presentation. "Wanna see that again? We wanted something you couldn't do by accident in your pocket. Just slide it across -- BOOM!"

Slide-to-unlock is an elegant, useful feature, and it's been copied by many other companies. The Android software by Google (GOOG) uses it, as does the new Windows 8 lock screen from Microsoft (MSFT). (Microsoft owns and publishes Top Stocks, an MSN Money site.)

So what will happen now that Apple owns the feature? Well, it's pretty clear that any devices using it could be sued for patent infringement. Time Magazine thinks we'll see a substantial drop in the number of devices offering it from now on.

Apple isn't saying anything about this publicly. But we might look to Jobs himself for clues about the company's legal strategy here.

In the new biography of Jobs out this week, he says he was "willing to go thermonuclear war" on Android. Google's copying of Apple's features amounted to "grand theft," he added.

He also said he would "spend every penny of Apple's $40 billion in the bank to right this wrong."

So I'm guessing Apple's lawyers are getting ready for a big fight.
Oct 26, 2011 6:38PM

It is not true, but it is a well worn idea in the patent world, that the 1st patent was for a bucket.  The 2nd patent was for a bucket with a handle on it.  The 1st patent holder could sell all the buckets he wanted, and the 2nd patent holder could sell all the handles he wanted, but if either sold a bucket with a handle on it, they would infringe the other.


The answer made the lawyers happy, they crossed licensed the patents, the inventors were happy, because they could sell (at least part) of their invention, and the general public was happy because the TRUE INTENT of the patent system was fulfilled.


IMO, the TRUE INTENT is not only to protect the work of inventors, but to FOSTER INNOVATION.  Unfortunately, in this upside down and perverted system, only the lawyers still win.  Whenever leaders take the stance that Jobs (and so many others) have in these cases, the people lose.


BTW, the 1st US patent was actually for a process to manufacture soap.... and I will get off that box now.

Oct 27, 2011 3:43AM
Even tho Microsoft did steal the GUI Idea from another company... That company was not Apple. Both Apple and MS got it from Xerox and their Parc Project. So before you accuse MS of stealing from Apple be aware of where it was actually gotten from in the first place. Apple sued MS over the GUI and lost because they didn't invent the GUI, Xerox did. That said I agree that other manufacturers of smartphones should pay a royalty (a small one) for the use of the slide to unlock feature. Of course that could backfire on them as several "innovations" from Apple were neither new nor paid for by them. The MacBook Air came out 5 years after similar ultra-light and ultra-thin Windows based laptops. The IPad  is a great tablet but it wasn't the first out there.... It wasn't even the fifth one on the market. It used third generation technology to be such an innovation in the marketplace. Pretty much the same with the IPod. The only thing that really made it different from the other digital music players on the market at the time was locking it to the ITunes market they created. 

If you really look at all the innovations that Apple has come up with you will find that they all used someone else's technology. Even the mighty Apple I desktop computer was done that way. According to Apple and most AppleFans that was the worlds first desktop computer. Unless of course you notice that a little company called Heath Scientific (AKA HeathKit) was selling desktop computer kits before the Apple was invented. Both Jobs and Wozniac were fully aware of them since they got their start by buying one before they started creating their own. Granted that the Apple I could do more than a HeathKit it still doesn't change the fact that they didn't invent the desktop computer. Basically they used somewhat newer tech than Heath used to create the Apple I which they then manufactured using an Assembly line. Said assembly line idea having been created back around the turn of the 1900's by a guy named Ford. The only thing that was new in it was the Operating System... maybe. The Woz was and is a good enough programmer to have written an OS without using someone else's work. Jobs on the other hand wasn't really up to it. Even Gates bought what became MS-DOS and he was a much better programmer in those days than Jobs ever was. 

Oh and for the record... the Mac wasn't the first GUI based PC that Apple created. The Lisa was. And  when I first saw the Lisa I was so amazed at the innovation in it that I would have sworn it should have had a Xerox Parc sticker on it and not the Apple Logo. 
Oct 27, 2011 2:57AM

I have an Android Phone, and the slide lock feature is one of the only things I don't like about the phone.  It would be so much cooler if something like MY thumbprint would open the phone.  If I were Google, before I spent any of my money to fight to keep this feature, I would put a new locking system on the Android phone.  There are so many unemployed IT people, they could have a design contest with the prize being a million dollars? with the winner agreeing to give up the patent in exchange for the cash and a job...and it would be MUCH cheaper than fighting Apple.  It would also generate a ton of publicity for Google and it would probably  produce some incredible ideas...maybe new technologies.  That's what I would do...but I'm just an unemployed Administrative Assistant who really doesn't like the lock on my Android phone :) 

Dec 19, 2011 10:06PM
Didn't anyone do discovery on prior art?

In the Babylon 5 TV show from the mid 90's, they had touch-screen computers which they had to slide-to-unlock on the screen, just like an ipad.  Prior art.

Dec 19, 2011 11:56PM
This is so stupid...Apple always makes things famous cuz they advertise that crap outta them and then they dont work properly. My droid incredible came out almost two years before the iphone 4 with siri and guess what??? I have google voice and it actually works. Lets see what else oh I can use flash because this company actually allows me full usage of my phone and they dont see the need to restrict me in what I want to use it for. I feel bad for all those out there that think they have a superior phone because they have an iphone, when it really just means they are a technology idiot that is ok with a simplistic smart phone.
Oct 26, 2011 6:52PM

"Google's copying of Apple's features amounted to "grand theft," he added."


ummmm...What about all of the stuff that Apple copies from Google?  How about Apple's "new feature" for a central Notifications Center that can easily be accessed by dragging your finger down from the top of the screen?  (something that Andorid phones have been able to do for years and is accessed in the exact same way)


If Apple pulls this crap I hope that Google goes and patents that feature and sues them right back...fricken hypocrites.

Oct 26, 2011 6:50PM
so i guess android will be counter-suing for apple stealing its pull down notification bar instead of the popups it used to use?
Dec 19, 2011 11:46PM

this is crazy!!! and everyone thinks Microsoft is a monopoly... Patents are supposed to be specific... I'd have to read the patent in detail but if it just specifies "unlocked via gestures" then APPLE could then sue anyone who use just a touch screen and power button... Sounds like there's some illegal stuff goin' on here... first applied for in 2005... what's next SCHLAGE is gonna patent the gesture required for opening door locks... WOW...I can see it now " a device for securing entry and interior doors requiring a metallic implement to unlock it via gestures" point is the language it too vague...


Oct 27, 2011 3:15AM

HAHA. What a joke. Palm had a touchscreen keyboard long before Apple dreamed of anything like an iPhone. Maybe Palm should get the patent for that technology. And Bell labs should get the patent on cell phone calling. And Xerox (who developed the WIMP window icon menu pointer which evolved into the GUI with Jobs and former XEROX employees claim they had stolen from them) ought to get the patent on the icon idea, pointers, and networking.

Apple is lucky with this device. It isn't any more advanced than a fifteen year old palm pilot and barely gets beyond the capabilities of 10 year old phones. Besides they will never get away with it when they go up against a powerhouse. Basically if you type a password on the screen, use a pattern, or any mode that involves touching the screen in anyway to enter a password and apple owns the patent. Yeah that will hold up in court. Maybe I'll apply for the patent on using the number pad to dial a phone. It just shows the simple minds of Apple leadership. They stole the technology to make the device and violated patents and lost in court.

I would love to see Apple enforce this. About 4 minutes with a good team of attorneys could demonstrate why this patent would be invalid. Too bad Jobs isn't still around. I never tire of watching to idiots at Apple getting slapped in the face by real technology companies in courts. People could say a specific word to unlock, have a finger print scan, tip it left right upside down, push power or other button in a pattern, scan your retina with the camera. Besides there are three trillion hackers that will have free fixes for non apple hardware to rub lock, caress lock, stroke lock, finger fondle unlock, and apple would have the burden of hunting them all down and proving it was distributed and violates the terms of the patent.

now I know why the device is a shiny paperweight.

Oct 27, 2011 2:49AM
I shutter to think what would happen if we had today's IP laws when inventions like the Wheel, Fire, Yoke, Internal Combustible engines, flight, the telephone, telegraph, steam engine, etc were invented.  This thing is the digital equivalent of a pin and tumbler lock.  Everyone else should be able to copy the design and just add their own tweaks and not have to pay some Pharaoh.

There is a point where you just need to tell a company to stuff it.  Not everything can have a patient.  Corporations do not need to be given the ability to charge people and others for everything and anything they do.  It stifles productivity, ingenuity and new development. 

It also just provides an outlet to funnel increasing amounts of capital to a smaller group of people, which is really the point.  A point we've pursued in this country since really the late 70's and 80's and it needs to be relegated to the dust bin of history.

Dec 19, 2011 10:02PM
I don't see how a movement can be patterned.  That's like making a patent for double-clicking an icon...

Also it was filed so long ago that I would think any actual court case would give current companies that use it the chance to remove the feature.  You could have a update to the phone that takes the feature out and replaces it with something else - some other pattern that isn't a swipe.

From what I understand - Apple would have had to fight the case as the competition brought the item to market citing that it had a patent pending and no one else can use it.  If they didn't fight it then, it's going to be a lot harder to fight it now.

Worst case scenario - a patch will someday show up on androids and whatever else to remove it.  I didn't buy my phone because how it unlocks, I doubt anyone did.

Oct 26, 2011 11:37PM
I just love when people claim the 'no problems with my Mac OS' nonsense.  The reason Apple comps don't crash and get viruses is for one reason and one only, less people use them!  Apple comps had only around 10% of the market most of it's life...why make viruses for 10% when you can for 90% instead?  Not to mention, most of Apple's 'magical' OS is designed by Microsoft engineers, that's right, Microsoft.
Dec 20, 2011 5:17AM
A simple software update to remove the slide to unlock feature is a lot cheaper than paying royalties to a thief.
Oct 27, 2011 12:20PM
I'm a believer in intellectual property rights.  When companies spend millions developing new products, they deserve protection from thieves who would steal what they have worked and paid for.  There is another consideration, however.   The development of the GUI at the Palo Alto Research Center has been mentioned.  Xerox staffed the center with top people and gave them the freedom to work on anything that they pleased, without demanding that they come up with marketable progress.  This was when Xerox still had a copier monopoly based on their patents, which have since expired.  The problem was that Xerox was notorious about not bringing any of their ideas to market.  Steve Jobs was INVITED to see what they had.  He was willing to do what Xerox wasn't - to risk millions developing and marketing a system based on the GUI.  His first effort was the Lisa, which was a failure and cost the company millions.  The Mac was successful, but the Apple board was tired of Job's risk-taking and fired him.  We use products all of the time without thinking of the investments made to produce them.
Dec 20, 2011 4:36AM
Well finally!! They wil consider my patent for turning phones off and on. I came up the the idea of a picture of a nail on the phone screen and you use any metal hammer to smack the nail on the  phone screen  to turn it off. A soon as I can figure out how to get the phone to turn back on by smacking with a metal hammer I will be worth hundreds of dollars!!! I'll leave Gates and Jobs in my dust.
Dec 20, 2011 5:26AM
This coming from the man (Jobs) who stole the name iPhone from Cisco who patented it years before anyone ever thought of the iPhone and thereby breaking Federal copyright laws! This is why I will never, EVER IN A MILLION YEARS BY AN APPLE PRODUCT!! Everything is proprietary! Nothing opensource! A company working so hard to push the internet revolution back a few generations to Jobs' heyday when nothing worked together and the extent of the internet was chats rooms and email.
Dec 19, 2011 9:32PM
great now everything is going to be even more expensive.
Oct 27, 2011 12:29AM
One thief suing another....thick as thieves comes to mind.
Oct 27, 2011 12:27AM

@ marc anthony

When considering smartphones, look at all angles. Even though the first iPhone may have been an innovative product, now apple is starting to steal some tricks from other OSes.

(Example: Android`s pop down notifications)

A quote from Steve Jobs himself:

"Good artists copy, great artists steal".

(look it up on youtube)

These days, everybody steals from everybody. People need to decide what OS is right for them, not exactly what is the most popular.

Oct 26, 2011 7:51PM
Way to go Jobs, so the consumer suffers for you're profits, just another reason I chose not to use Apple products all though I find them superior in some sense.  But when you weigh the arrogance of the Apple machine against economy and Apple's unwillingness to level it's price to a more economic field, I chose as others a wider range of products.  You could learn from Bill Gates you dill weed.  Keep pissing on the consumer to fill you're greed, you will end up with nothing.
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