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Patents in Apple-HTC case filed in 1994 and 1996, long before smartphones existed

July 15, 2011 |  7:15 pm


Lost in the clamor over Apple Inc.'s preliminary patent victory over rival phone-maker HTC Corp. is that the two patents in question are so old they predate smartphones.

A judge at the U.S. International Trade Commission has ruled that HTC infringed two of Apple's patents, HTC acknowledged today, causing speculation that other Android phone makers may also be in for trouble if they're also using Apple-owned technology.  (The ITC still has to make a final ruling on the HTC case, and the company says it will appeal.).

But what kind of technology is at issue here? When we think of smartphones, we think of touch screens, software apps, wireless radios, Bluetooth and other recent inventions.  But the patents at issue here go back way further than that. 

The first one, 6,343,263, was filed in August 1994 -- 17 years ago -- and covers "Real-time signal processing system for serially transmitted data."  Meaning, roughly, it handles data ("voice, facsimile, video and the like") being sent to it from other devices over a network.  There is no mention in the patent of wireless networks, cellular phones or really anything you'd directly associate with a smartphone except the sending and receiving of data. 

You can imagine that many -- or all -- smartphones would need to be able to receive and process real-time data from outside sources, so whether Apple's infringement claim on it will stop at HTC, or Android, or anywhere, seems to be an open question.

The second patent, 5,946,647, was filed in February 1996, and treats an even more generic subject: System and method for performing an action on a structure in computer-generated data. What's that, you ask? Well, if you open an email on your HTC touch-screen phone, you are in fact using your finger to interact with a piece of data. By touching it, you are commanding the phone to perform an action (like "open") on the email. This patent has to do with the system that, for instance, tells the phone to open the email.

This stuff is pretty fundamental to the way most smartphones -- actually, most computers -- work these days. That's why there's so much speculation about how a ruling in Apple's favor could be problematic for many other manufacturers. 

"This is basically Macintosh-related technology," said Florian Mueller, an intellectual property watcher who has been closely following the smartphone patent wars. (Apple has been developing the Macintosh line since the early 1980s.) In smartphones, he said, "we see a convergence of computer hardware and software and the mobile communications industry."

"And that's why the patent problem is such a mess," Mueller added. "The vast majority of the patents in a smartphone are computer hardware and software patents -- mobile communication is just a minority."


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Photo:  Sprint's HTC EVO 4G, among the smartphones that could be affected by Apple's patent complaint. Credit: Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times