updated 07:50 pm EDT, Tue October 9, 2012
'Slide to unlock' now a more powerful patent
Apple's "slide to unlock" patent, which has been at or near the center of a number of patent battles, has been continued -- and perhaps powerfully extended -- in a new patent just awarded to the Cupertino computer maker. The new patent, in addition to re-validating the original patent, adds the ability for Apple's particular "slide to unlock" gesture to open directly into an application, an expanded meaning that could have serious legal implications in the ongoing litigation.
The foundation of the "transitioning the device to an application" claim is buried in the original "slide to unlock" patent, known in court documents as the '721 for the last three digits of the original patent number. It stated that "in some embodiments, the lock/unlock feature may apply to specific applications that are executing on the device as opposed to the device as a whole. In some embodiments, an unlock gesture [could facilitate] transitions from one application to another," and went to describe possible hold or pause features, or the ability to move from one application to another, or a "fade" transition between applications.
The new patent expands on the concept in ways that could spell trouble for Android device makers and Google itself, since many Android devices use a method that is materially similar to "slide to unlock" but also use the concept in ways identical to those described in the original patent and clarified in the new continuation. While third-party makers have devised other alternatives on the concept original enough to be distinguished from it, existing options may now conceivably be found to be infringing based on the expanded definition. The original patent was one of those Apple sued Samsung for copying and won a landslide victory against the South Korean rival over, not to mention a victory against Motorola for copying the same technology.
Apple's original patent is considered solid, having already survived legal challenges to its validity and with the original patent having been filed a year before the iPhone came to market, and consequently long before other smartphones began to model their devices and software on Apple's lead. Device makers can no longer get away with having the swipe to unlock gesture follow any of the actions described in Apple's patent filing, perhaps severely limiting its use in non-iOS devices. It remains to be seen if Apple will use the expanded patent to pursue new litigation, or simply apply it to bolster cases it has already won.