10 Dec 2011

Apple touch-screen patent war comes to the UK

The maker of the iPhone is engaged in a global battle with other mobile phone manufacturers to protect the patented technology used on its smartphones.

Touch screen phones and tablet computers are now the most valuable devices in the technology industry, writes Channel 4 News Technology Correspondent Benjamin Cohen. It’s not hard to see why, we spend so much time interacting with them, and the profits that are derived from them don’t just come from one-off sales, as used to be the case with a lot of technology.

Instead, when we buy content for our devices, whether it’s music, films, games and apps, we’re giving money to the owners of the operating system we’re using. Apple for iPhones and iPads (it takes 30 per cent) or Google for the many devices running the Android operating system (it takes 10 per cent).

Locked in to Apple

And we can’t move the content we purchase from one system to another. It’s the reason I’ll probably end up sticking with Apple’s devices, because I’ve spent so much on the apps and other bits of content that just won’t work with Google’s system. I’m locked in. Locking us in is the main reason that Apple was able to cement its transition from an also-ran to the leading company in technology.

I’ll probably end up sticking with Apple because I’ve spent so much on their apps.

Given how valuable the devices and its users are, there’s no surprise that the market is incredibly competitive. But where once the giants competed on features, they now compete on patents.

In the old days, technology companies used to license each other patents. Actually, it still happens. The makers of Android devices have to pay Microsoft a fee for each device sold because Android uses some technology that Microsoft owns a patent for.

Sue and counter-sue

But in the case of Apple and the companies making technology powered by Google’s system, there isn’t this more peaceful relationship. Instead, the giants sue and counter-sue each other. Devices using Android have been banned for sale in the past and just yesterday, Motorola (soon to be owned by Google) won a case in Germany that could mean that Apple’s iPhones and iPads can’t be sold in their current form.

A case in the UK may rest on the patent for unlocking a touch-screen device with the hearing hinging on a grainy video showing a researcher unlocking a touch-screen back in 1991.

It’s a battle that won’t just go away – and it might start costing us in the pocket. At the moment, Android devices are relatively cheap compared to Apple’s. If the makers of Android phones have to start paying out licenses to Apple, you can imagine that the prices will go up. After all, someone’s got to pay for all the expensive patent lawyers’ fees.