Among the thousands of patents issued by the United States Patent and Trademark Office yesterday was an interesting one granted to Apple, Inc. US Patent No. 7,634,163, titled “Remote control of electronic devices,” gives a glimpse of what might be in store for the iPhone down the road. The patent covers a method of using a telephony device, such as an iPhone, to remotely control various tasks associated with a controlled device, such as a personal computer. Essentially, the iPhone or next generation smart phone will allow a user to control navigation of user interfaces associated with applications or an operating system residing on the second device. The patent explains that users wish to interact with home or office computer systems from remote locations, and that a variety of applications exist that allow for such functionality, but still require the user access the remote computer over a network, such as the Internet, using a terminal emulation program, such as Telnet, or other publicly available remote control application. But at times when a remote computer system having a display device is not be available the user is pretty much out of luck. Enter the next generation smart phone with associated method.
First, before going any further allow me to point out that at no time in the patent application is the term “iPhone” used. One would have to largely be brain dead not to know that Apple’s smart phone is the wildly popular iPhone, so while I am making a leap here I think it is largely a safe one to make. On top of that, Apple is not known for having a history of licensing out its technology for others to use, so it would be naive to think that Apple has sought patent protection for a generic smart phone method that would allow remote computer access and control. Of course, it is enormously appropriate to write the patent and obtain patent claims that are not iPhone dependent. Whatever the Apple smart phone evolves into, or whatever the smart phones of others evolve into, this patent should lock up for Apple remote computer access through smart phone of a secondary device, such as a personal or office computer.
How can I say that Apple has locked up remote access and control of a computer via smart phone? Well, I am no doubt projecting a little, but it is hardly a stretch to notice that the Apple patent portfolio is quite strong and Apple’s patents are as a rule well written. You do not see competitors typically encroach upon Apple turf much, and Apple has been on the forefront of locking up the iPod and iPhone, including a variety of accessories. There is a reason that the Microsoft Zune has few, if any, accessories, and the reason has an awful lot to do with Apple’s patent position. In a nutshell, Apple well understands the power of a patent, and they understand multiple patents that protect core products are essential for a technology based company. Apple is constantly pushing the envelope, constantly expanding its patent position and constantly innovating. Independent inventors and small businesses could learn a lot by paying attention to Apple’s patent strategy, as well as their research and development strategy. Emulating a winner makes perfect business sense, and in terms of picking a tech savvy company to follow you would be hard pressed to find a better blueprint than the Apple patent blueprint to follow.
The patent explains that a controlling device, such as a smart phone, allows for a task to be controlled by mapping user input received at the controlling device to control commands suitable for controlling the task at the controlled device, such as your remotely located home or office computer. Some examples of tasks that can be undertaken include navigating user interfaces and/or file systems, executing and controlling functions or features associated with applications or an operating system or collecting information.
In some implementations, a cursor can be navigated around a user interface associated with a controlled device using a controlling device. As the cursor traverses the user interface the contents of files, documents, web pages, mail messages, word processing files, links, controls and the like are converted into audible descriptions. The audible descriptions are transmitted back to the controlling device and provide audible feedback to a user of the controlling device, so that the user can navigate and control the user interface without a display screen.
Of course, the exclusive right granted by the patent is dictated by the claims awarded by the USPTO. There are two independent claims in this application, specifically claims 1 and 17. These read as follows:
1. A method comprising: receiving an input from a telephony device; using the input to control a software user interface associated with a controlled device, the software user interface having a plurality of user interface objects, wherein controlling the software user interface, comprises: directionally stepping through the plurality of user interface objects displayed in the software user interface to select a user interface object of interest; activating the user interface object of interest in the software user interface; and producing an output associated with the activation of the user interface object of interest; where a function mapped to an input provided at the telephony device initiates gathering information to determine a state of the controlled device at the telephony device.
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17. A computer-readable medium having instructions stored thereon, which, when executed by one or more processors, causes the one or more processors to perform operations comprising: receiving an input from a telephony device; using the input to control a software user interface associated with a controlled device, the software user interface having a plurality of software display objects, wherein controlling the software user interface, comprises: directionally stepping through the plurality of software display objects in the software user interface to select a software display object of interest; activating the software display object of interest in the software user interface; and producing an output associated with the activation of the software display object of interest in the software user interface; where a function mapped to an input provided at the telephony device initiates gathering information to determine a state of the controlled device at the telephony device.
Claim 1, which is followed by claims 2 through 16 that depend directly or indirectly on claim 1, are method claims. Method claims have been patentable since 1790, and will be patentable even after the Supreme Court issues its decision in Bilski, which is anticipated during the Spring of 2010. (For more on Bilski see our Bilski Page). These particular method claims appear to be written to clearly survive the currently restrictive “machine or transformation” test announced by the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. There are multiple machines here, namely a smart phone and a computer, and a communications architecture that allows for remote access and control. I cannot imagine this type of method claim being in any jeopardy whatsoever under the current standard, or whatever standard the Supreme Court will ultimately announce.
Claim 17 relates to a computer readable medium having instructions stored thereon that will cause a certain reaction upon execution. That is a convoluted way to describe software, but given the fantasy world currently occupied by most of the Judges on the Federal Circuit it is the way we need to speak at the moment. God forbid that we actually call it what it is, no the Judges on the Federal Circuit would prefer that we articulate an invention using convoluted language. Really, I think they would prefer that this sort of thing simply not be patentable at all, and overwhelmingly they still haven’t figured out that whatever ridiculous test they announce will not in any way prevent the patenting of software, it will just force patent attorneys to be more creative and articulate tangible components and map software claims to long patentable inventions, like concrete methods that employ a device you can touch.
While I typically find myself admiring the handy work of Apple’s patent attorneys, I would have liked to see this innovation be claimed and described as a system that employs an overall architecture that relies on computer, telephony and telecommunications equipment, processes and methods. I have no doubt that Apple and its attorneys know what they are doing and if this is indeed going to be an area of technological pursuit by Apple there will be many more patents and patent applications. Apple constantly expands its patent footprint, which is the responsible thing to do so that others cannot cut in and block Apple’s path.
Regardless of what you read in many outlets, patents do not in any way hamper innovation. Apple is a perfect example of how a coherent innovation and patent policy implemented appropriately continues to forward innovation. Those companies that do not follow this course find themselves looking up at others who do. I expect as we move out of this recession there will be ample illustrations of old tech companies being surpassed by the new kids on the block, all of who will have solid research, development and innovation mated with a progressive patent policy.