As if Apple’s ridiculous tablet design patent didn’t hold enough ominous tidings for the mobile tech industry, the US Patent and Trademark Office just awarded the company another ludicrous claim: that's right, “slide to unlock” is officially an Apple patent. That means all the non-Apple phones and tablets that use the omnipresent unlocking maneuver are possibly infringing on Apple’s intellectual property – which could lead to complex legal battles that tie up competitors’ products, as Apple has done with the Samsung Galaxy Tab in Australia.
Even 9to5Mac, which broke the news, admits that’s it ridiculous – but it’s legal until a court finds prior art against it or declares it invalid. Interestingly enough, Apple tried using an older “Slide to Unlock” patent in an injunction attempt against Samsung in the Netherlands, but the Dutch judge tossed out the claim and declared the patent invalid. According to FOSS Patents, Apple filed the original version of the European patent on December 23, 2005; a company called Neonode had released a Windows CE phone earlier that year that already had a slide to unlock feature. How’s that for prior art? In the Dutch case, Samsung also cited a publication from 1992 that discussed touchscreen slide to unlock technology. Plus, CNET amusingly points out that the head-hunting Predator used a slide to unlock feature on his alien gadgets way back in 1987.
Since the European version of Apple's original slide to unlock patent, patent 7,657,849, was declared invalid, the new US version includes the following additional verbiage: In addition, there is a need for sensory feedback to the user regarding progress towards satisfaction of a user input condition that is required for the transition to occur. Presumably, Apple is banking on the fact that the Neonode phone did not have any type of sensory feedback and is trying to stop US court arguments before they begin. But does sensory feedback really make the iPhone version of slide to unlock a new, patentable invention compared to the Neonode version?
Hopefully, US patent 8,046,721 won’t stay valid for long; no doubt Google, Samsung and others are already picking it over with a fine-toothed comb and preparing legal strategies to combat it.