By now most of us have heard that Microsoft has entered into licensing agreements with a good deal of Android hardware vendors. HTC, Motorola, and others are forking out undisclosed amounts for each phone or tablet they ship with Android loaded on it. Though no one is saying just how much this “fee” is, many have thrown around the figure of $15 per device. That essentially means that your Android-powered phone is costing you $15 more than it would if Microsoft didn’t have those patents… but what are those patents?
Part of those license agreements must be a secrecy clause, because no one is talking about the patents. Until now.
Barnes and Noble uses Android to power their Nook line of eBook readers. Microsoft wants a piece of their pie, too, but B&N is fighting back, and exposing the patents that Microsoft says Android is infringing upon.
Here’s their abbreviated list, and their rebuttal to the patents in question:
‘372 Patent (Web Browser Background Image Loading)
The ‘372 patent was filed April 18, 1996. Very generally, the patent relates to an outmoded system for retrieving an electronic document like a webpage that includes an embedded background image, which may have a bearing on very old web browsers connected to the Internet via slow, dial-up connections, but has little application in the context of improved, modern Internet connections…
‘522 Patent (Operating System Provided Tabs)
The ‘522 patents was filed December 13, 1994. The patent relates to a single, simple tool provided by an operating system (such as Windows) that allows applications running on that operating system to have a common look and feel. Since operating systems provide many such tools, the patent amounts to nothing more than a trivial design choice. In particular, and despite the fact that this concept is in the prior art, the ‘522 patent’s method allows for the creation of tabs. The tabs are analogous to dividers like those found in a notebook or to labels found in a file cabinet, and allow the user of an application to navigate between multiple pages of information in the same window by clicking on the tabs .
‘551 Patent (Electronic Selection with “Handles”)
On its face, the ‘551 patent purports to claim priority back to a November 10, 2000 filing date. Generally, the ‘551 patent relates to another simple and trivial feature that is not only disclosed by numerous prior art references, but is certainly not central to an operating system like Android selecting or highlighting text or graphics within an electronic document. The patent provides that a user selects a word or phrase, for example, by tapping on a touch screen display or clicking with a mouse. Such a selection may be shown by highlighting the selected word or phrase. The user is presented with “selection handles” on one or both ends of the selected areas. These “selection handles” can be moved by the user to highlight more or less text or graphics…
‘233 Patent (Annotation of Electronic Documents)
The ‘233 patent was filed December 7, 1999. Like the other Microsoft patents, the ‘233 patent relates only to one small feature that has long been present in the prior art and is not central to Android or any other operating system. More specifically, the patent generally relates to a method for capturing annotations made in an electronic document (like an electronic book), without changing the electronic document itself…
‘780 Patent (Web Browser Loading Status Icons)
The ‘780 patent was not filed until May 6, 1997, long after the first web browser came to market. In addition to being late to the game, the patent is directed to a very simple and obvious feature a temporary graphic element or status icon that is displayed to indicate that a hypermedia browser (such as a web browser) is loading content. When a browser is intended for use with a portable computer system with a limited display size, the ‘780 patent notes that it is desirable to maximize the browser’s content display area (the portion of the browser that actually displays a website, not the menus, toolbars, or buttons). Thus, the patent makes a trivial design choice and provides that the graphic element or loading status icon is to be temporarily displayed in the content display area of the browser as opposed to a separate space such as the browser’s menu bar, tool bar, or a separate status bar…
There are a few other patents involved, but they pretty much fall into the same category: prior art.
“Prior art” is one standard by which the validity of patents are measured. If it can be proven then there was the same (or significantly similar) innovation prior to filing for the patent, the patent may be thrown out.
But B&N isn’t simply standing their ground, they’re fighting back. They’ve petitioned for an antitrust investigation into Microsoft centering around these patents, and whether Microsoft is essentially extorting their competitors by forcing them into licensing agreements under the threat of litigation.
If B&N wins, there is a chance that these some (or all) of the patents will be thrown out. If that’s the case it could give grounds to the licensees to renegotiate (or cancel) their licensing agreements with Microsoft.
While end users likely won’t see a price reduction of $15 per device, they should see greater innovation and resources given to Android-powered phones and tablets.