Apple on Offense: A Look at the Newest Patents

The Apple patent wars continue, and we will address the latest soon. That’s the defense.  In this note, let’s look at the offense. Apple’s newest patent grants (removable, magnetic antennae and solar panels for SmartPhones) remind us of the need for a coherent strategy with respect to patent timing, and the trade-off between patent protection and a systemic protection of trade secrets program.  Clearly the cost of patenting is not the issue at Apple, but a recent article in zdnet about new Apple patents lays bare some of Apple’s strategic product plans, or at least the relevant applications did.  Such a revelation may well be ok for Apple, but it is illustrative of the intelligence patent filing provides others who may wish you less success.

Adding a note caution for the unaware, Gene Quinn, IPWatchdog, points out the dangers in relying on trade secrets alone. First of all, he makes sure all understand trade secrets are no longer protections once an invention is sold or otherwise distributed. They (the protections) immediately vanish. Trade secrets protect ideas and processes, Mr. Quinn contends, patents protect inventions. Trade secrets have their place, and they can be licensed alone or as a package to enhance a patent license (see Licensing Trade Secrets), but the exclusive rights inherent in a patent are infinitely more marketable.

Finally, Mr. Quinn argues that filing a provisional patent application is the best argument for those who think the entire patent process is too expensive, adding at once 12 valuable months to the time an inventor might need to sort through the details, and to the effective life of the patent. His summary: don’t start the commercialization process without filing at a minimum a provisional patent application.

For Apple, patenting is clearly the strategic choice, and oddly the effect of revealing product plans may not have as much effect on the competition as on the consumer.  Publicity about a solar-powered iTouch, for example, may lead someone to procrastinate from a current purchase.

Or, consider Apple’s newest patent for controlling home devices:

The invention provides systems and methods for managing and controlling networked devices. A system comprises a host application executing on, for example, a personal computer, and one or more networked devices equipped with network capability, digital devices “such as MP3 players and DVRs, an electronically-controlled device such as a light circuit or other type of circuit, and the like.”

We’ve all read about home appliances being networked. Control4 offers a neat package now, for example. Nothing is certain, but using your tablet to control lighting, temperature, even the garage door let the cat out may well result in royalties (or direct payments) to Apple in the not so distant future. It sure would be nice for the next iPad I buy to have these capabilities … perhaps I should wait.