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Apple vs. Google: Who Owns Slide-to-Unlock on Phones?

2014-06-20 16:58:57 


Both iPhones and Android devices unlock in the same way: with the user sliding his or her finger along part of the screen. That simple function has prompted a huge amount of legal wrangling, with both Apple and Google (by proxy of its recent acquisition, Motorola) scoring victories over the ownership of “slide-to-unlock” on phones in the past week.

A German court ruled in Apple’s favor on Thursday — twice — on separate allegations that Motorola Mobility had infringed on Apple’s patents on slide-to-unlock. A Munich regional court said certain Motorola phones infringed on the German part of a broader European patent. It’s Apple’s first patent victory over Motorola ever.

The rulings affect the Motorola Flipout, Milestone, Milestone XT720 and Defy. Although the rulings open the door for Apple to block the sale of those devices in Germany, Motorola has already said the judgment would have no impact on sales since it was planning to implement a new way to unlock the phone that wouldn’t infringe on Apple’s patent.

What that new unlocking method would be isn’t clear, and Motorola, which was recently acquired by Google,has said it will appeal the ruling. If it does end up needing to change how its phones unlock, however, a recent patent awarded to Google could be a clue.

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office earlier this month awarded Google a patent on a certain type of slide-to-unlock (excerpts are viewable in the gallery below). Among the many points covered in the patent, there’s one that specifies the user might slide an icon (from a choice of icons) in a certain direction to simiultaneously unlock the device and launch an app, such as email. There’s also a provision for unlocking the device by voice.

Such unlocking methods clearly aren’t present on Apple’s iOS devices and would theoretically put Motorola products in the clear. However, Florian Mueller of Foss Patents suspects that as Apple tightens its grip over slide-to-unlock, there may be a general “degradation of the user experience” on Android devices.