Will Apple's 'Slide to Unlock' patent stomp on Android or Windows 8?

Apple's newly issued patent raises questions about potential legal battles over Microsoft and Android devices that use similar unlock schemes

You might think that at least two features in Microsoft's Windows 8 Developer Preview may come perilously close to infringing on Apple's "Slide to Unlock" patent.

As currently constituted, the Windows 8 Lock Screen requires a slide -- from bottom to top -- to reveal the logon screen. And the optional Windows 8 picture password feature (the subject of its own Microsoft trademark filing) requires the user to define and repeat a pattern of three touches on the screen.

You might also think that every slide-to-unlock Android device manufacturer would be quaking in lead-lined boots, with Apple's lawyers poised to shoot down their unlock screens.

It doesn't take a team of patent lawyers to see similarities between Windows 8's swipe-up-to-unlock and touch-to-log-on gestures, and Apple's unlock shtick. But do either infringe on Apple's patent? Every Android device starts with a swipe, but was Apple first to the mark? Take a closer look.

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office granted Patent 7,657,849 (alternate source) to Apple on Feb. 2, 2010. Shortly thereafter, Apple sued HTC for its slide-to-unlock transgressions. USPTO granted a very similar patent to Apple, number 8,046,721, on Oct. 25, 2011.

Here's the abstract for the first Apple patent, issued almost two years ago:

A device with a touch-sensitive display may be unlocked via gestures performed on the touch-sensitive display. The device is unlocked if contact with the display corresponds to a predefined gesture for unlocking the device. The device displays one or more unlock images with respect to which the predefined gesture is to be performed in order to unlock the device. The performance of the predefined gesture with respect to the unlock image may include moving the unlock image to a predefined location and/or moving the unlock image along a predefined path. The device may also display visual cues of the predefined gesture on the touch screen to remind a user of the gesture.

The abstract for the second Apple patent, the one issued yesterday, is identical to the earlier patent, except it includes one more sentence at the end: "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." The older patent is listed as a parent case.

As the 9to5Mac site explains, the Neonode N1m phone had a slide-to-unlock feature that predated the first Apple patent by more than a year. "Interestingly," the site says, "a Dutch court ruled that the slide to unlock patent was invalid because of this very device." Indeed.

Take a look at tnkgrl's ancient video review of the N1m at around 4:15 into the clip. See how the N1m implemented a left-to-right unlock swipe? Of course, Apple would argue that the N1m swipe doesn't include "sensory feedback to the user regarding progress." Perhaps that's why Apple filed the second patent.

American courts aren't held to Dutch precedents, but whatever sanity prevailed in the Netherlands should hold some sway on this side of the Atlantic. It's hard to believe that Apple could sandbag Android on swipe to unlock, thanks to the N1m.

As for the Windows 8 speculation, while patents are subject to interpretation in ways that defy gravity, if not logic, the dozen-or-so dense pages of description in the two Apple patents appear to let Windows 8 off the hook. The pertinent "claim" involves:

...detecting a contact with the touch-sensitive display at a first predefined location corresponding to an unlock image; continuously moving the unlock image on the touch-sensitive display in accordance with movement of the contact while continuous contact with the touch screen is maintained, wherein the unlock image is a graphical, interactive user-interface object with which a user interacts in order to unlock the device; and unlocking the hand-held electronic device if the moving the unlock image on the touch-sensitive display results in movement of the unlock image from the first predefined location to a predefined unlock region on the touch-sensitive display.

While the Abstract doesn't delve into the meaning of an "unlock image," this claim in the patents makes it clear that Apple's patented process only applies to dragging a bunch of predefined pixels across the screen. Neither the Windows 8 lock screen nor the picture password feature require the user to drag an image across the screen.

It looks like Windows 8 dodged the bullet -- this time.

This article, "Will Apple's 'Slide to Unlock' patent stomp on Android or Windows 8?" was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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