Apple continues building dominant mobile patent portfolio

By Steve Brachmann
January 29, 2015

Apple Inc., based in Cupertino, CA, has been a huge player in the consumer electronics industry since its earliest days, and recent years have seen it succeed especially in the realm of mobile electronic devices. The Apply Pay mobile payment system has been gaining strength in recent weeks and in mid-December, the company claimed that its service supported about 90 percent of the total American credit card purchase volume. A new day in mobile cooperation may also be on the horizon as a result of several interesting moves, including the first agreement between Apple and Google that allows those purchasing online content to have access rights on either the Android or the iOS platform; this agreement is specifically in place for Disney movies. In business news, there has been some speculation that Apple might engage in its first ever euro-denominated bond sale, with some sources speculating that the company could issue up to $5 billion USD in euro-denominated bonds.

In terms of innovation, it’s clear that there is an almost singular focus at Apple on research and development in its long line of mobile electronic devices. Patents issued by the USPTO in recent weeks showcase everything from wrap-around device displays to handset systems which can change modes if a user moves the phone away from his or her ear. Other patents show featured water exposure indicators for portable electronic devices and a method of determining characters that are handwritten on a touch-sensitive screen.

We were able to find some really fantastic patent applications that have been assigned to Apple over the past few weeks. A couple discuss the improved use of mobile devices for emergency response, including one that details internal smoke detector circuitry for personal electronics. Another pair of patent applications claim interesting systems for travel, including one that communicates an anticipated travel time for calendar appointments to a user. We also found another technology related to handwriting recognition for a mobile device that our readers may enjoy.

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Issued Patents of Note: Mobile Devices Galore, from Wrap-Around Displays to Intelligent Handset Systems

Apple has a very strong patent portfolio, although it might not actually be the world’s most innovative company strictly in terms of actual U.S. patents earned. During 2013, Apple was issued 1,775 patents by the USPTO, placing it 15th overall in terms of patenting entities worldwide. Incredibly, this total was 56.3 percent greater than the number of U.S. patents granted to Apple during 2012. In a move that may signal a slowdown to the intense legal battles between the Apple-led Rockstar Consortium against Samsung and other developers of Android devices, Rockstar sold 4,000 patents related to smartphone technologies for $900 million to RPX Corporation in late December. The consortium sold these patents at a loss of more than $3 billion from the original purchase price of $4.5 billion.

water exposureOnce again, our survey of Apple’s patents found a large number and a wide array of technologies pertinent for mobile electronic devices, including a couple of intriguing hardware innovations that grabbed our attention. A tool for reducing the risks that the internal circuitry of electronic devices is affected by water exposure is disclosed and protected by U.S. Patent No. 8913771, which is titled Portable Electronic Device Having a Water Exposure Indicator Label. The media player claimed here is comprised of audio playback circuitry enclosed by a housing, an exposed female audio connector exposed through the housing and a water exposure indicator label positioned at the end of the connector that changes color when exposed to water. This provides users with an easy way to determine if water has infiltrated a device through an audio jack.

wrap around displayThe use of flexible displays to create an electronic device with a wrap-around screen is discussed within U.S. Patent No. 8896563, issued under the title Electronic Device With Wrap Around Display. It claims a consumer electronic product with a transparent housing, a flexible display within the housing that presents visual content through the transparent housing and a second flexible display within the first flexible display that presents visual content in cooperation with the first display. The wrap-around display of this invention increases the amount of area that an electronic device has to display icons, images, video and more.

handwritten characterAs we’ll see again in our discussion of Apple’s patent applications, handwriting recognition systems have been an area of focus for the research & development activities of this company. U.S. Patent No. 8908973, which is titled Handwritten Character Recognition Interface, also describes a system developed to incorporate handwritten information into text entry inputs. The patent protects a method of receiving a handwritten input on a touch-sensitive display of a device by detecting handwriting and pressure components of the handwritten input, determining character input candidates based on the handwritten input, presenting candidates as provisional current input and receiving a selection input for one of the candidates. Improvements to techniques for establishing video calls is another area of Apple development as reflected by U.S. Patent No. 8917311, which is titled Establishing a Connection for a Video Call. The patent claims a method performed by a multi-device system involving multiple network address translation (NAT) devices that involves sending a first message to a videotelephony server that contains a unique identifier, an Internet Protocol (IP) address and a port number, and sending that information to a second NAT device through the use of a push notification server. The triggered check process established by this invention improves the responsiveness of Interactive Connectivity Establishment (ICE) protocols used for videotelephony services.

The novel use of sensors included within electronic devices to improve certain areas of device functionality are featured in a couple of patents that caught our eyes today. Electronic devices that can detect when a device has been moved away from a user’s face have been created but could be improved by the technology in U.S. Patent No. 8917577, issued under the title Microphone Proximity Detection. The mobile device claimed here has a handset receiver that outputs a receiver acoustic signal, a first microphone that provides an uplink signal for a call, a second microphone positioned closer to the handset receiver than the first and a signal processor that monitors a frequency response of the handset receiver based on the acoustic signal detected by the second microphone. This microphone array can improve the detection of the phone’s position when moved away from the user’s ear, improving the mobile device’s ability to switch between speaker mode and handset mode. We were also intrigued by a system of analyzing location and connection information to create an intuitive mobile electronic device that was described within U.S. Patent No. 8892391, issued under the title Activity Detection. The patent protects a method performed by a mobile device that involves receiving a plurality of sensor values detected by onboard sensors over a period of time, calculating a plurality of derived values from the sensor values and selectively combining the derived values to create abstract values which can discriminate between a plurality of possible activities. This system could analyze speed data to determine that a user is running and loading fitness tracking applications in response or, in another example, could determine that a user is driving based on GPS data and a handset connection.

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Apple’s Patent Applications: More Mobile Electronic Innovations, from Vehicle Navigation Displays to Classroom Reading Groups

Research and development expenditures by Apple have been spiking upwards in recent years. Financial figures for R&D at Apple that we were able to find indicate that the corporation has increased its investment in innovation by at least 30 percent every year since 2010. Since that time, Apple’s investment in R&D per year has grown from $1.78 billion up to $6.04 billion in 2014. A 2014 survey of more than 1,500 senior innovation executives from companies all over the world, conducted by the Boston Consulting Group, resulted in Apple being named the most innovative company in the world, ahead of patenting giants like Samsung, IBM and Microsoft.

We noticed a good number of patent applications filed by Apple in recent months which seek to improve the company’s patent portfolio in mobile electronic devices, which it will need to keep up with challenges from Samsung and other mobile developers. In our recent Samsung coverage we noted an improvement to devices using flexible displays, and Apple is trying to increase its holdings in that area with U.S. Patent Application No. 20140362020, filed under the title Electronic Devices With Flexible Displays. This improved electronic device takes advantage of some of the characteristics of flexible displays so that device users can interact with certain input/output components, such as microphones, speakers and buttons, through the flexible screen. The electronic device claimed has a display with a flexible substrate having an array of display pixels and an electrical component behind the flexible substrate that gathers user input by detecting deformations in the flexible substrate. Those iPhone users who find their applications updating at inconvenient times may also benefit from the technology described in U.S. Patent Application No. 20140366041, which is titled Dynamic Adjustment of Mobile Device Based on User Activity. This patent application would protect a method of receiving event data from a first process running on a mobile device, receiving event registration data from a second process and invoking the second process based on triggers identified in the event registration data. This system allows a mobile device to track usage statistics for applications so that updates can be installed before the time that a user typically accesses an application.

We took note of a couple of novel technologies for electronic devices that could end up being life-saving innovations for users in emergency situations. The use of an electronic device to detect, analyze and report information about a fire emergency is discussed within U.S. Patent Application No. 20140340216, which is titled Wireless Device Networks With Smoke Detection Capabilities. The patent application claims an electronic device with a display, a housing, a smoke detector and communications circuitry that is configured to transmit data to external equipment if the smoke detector detects smoke. The circuitry provided by this invention is capable of transmitting useful information on fire and smoke conditions to firefighting personnel as well as neighbors or others residing in the same building. A natural language system for initiating phone calls with emergency responders without having to dial 911 is at the center of U.S. Patent Application No. 20140370841, entitled System and Method for Emergency Calls Initiated by Voice Command. This innovation leverages the voice command responsiveness of Apple’s Siri technology to provide users with a simple method for contact emergency resources. The patent application claims a method of operating a digital assistant by receiving speech input from a user, determining that the speech input expresses a request to contact emergency services, determining the telephone number of a local emergency dispatcher based on the device’s location and calling the dispatcher.

Apple’s device innovations also extend into the area of travel services, helping Apple device owners get from place to place on time and via the quickest route possible. Improvements to in-vehicle navigation systems for the display of more robust and useful information are the focus of U.S. Patent Application No. 20140365126, entitled Mapping Application With Turn-By-Turn Navigation Mode for Output to Vehicle Display. The method for an application executing on a mobile device that would be protected involves rendering an animated navigation presentation for output to an external display screen outside of the mobile device. The navigation presentation includes an animated map displaying a route portion towards a destination while maneuver information is simultaneously displayed on the screen of a mobile device, providing a multi-screen interface for delivering turning directions. Those who find themselves scrambling to make a scheduled meeting or appointment might be better organized thanks to the technology outlined by U.S. Patent Application No. 20140365107, which is titled Specifying Travel Times for Calendared Events. The patent application would protect a machine readable medium storing a calendar application that has a graphic user interface that includes representations for a set of appointments scheduled for a period of time; at least one appointment is provided with a representation of travel time associated with that entry.

Methods for providing real-time multi-script handwriting functionality to enable the easier use of cursive writing and language scripts would be protected for Apple by U.S. Patent Application No. 20140365949, filed under the title Managing Real-Time Handwriting Recognition. The computer-readable media claimed here includes instructions that, when executed, receives a handwriting input from a user based on a handwritten strokes on a touch-sensitive surface, rendering strokes in a handwriting input area in real-time and generating a recognition result for a plurality of handwritten strokes when those strokes are combined as a single recognition unit as determined by a pinch gesture or an expand gesture input. The universal recognizer incorporated by this invention allows users to more easily communicate via mobile devices using languages written in cursive script, including Arabic and Asian languages, without the cumbersome need to manually switch scripts within an application.

A digital system that can help support the activities of large groups of young readers is another recent Apple innovation, highlighted in the filing of U.S. Patent Application No. 20140349259, titled Device, Method, and Graphical User Interface for a Group Reading Environment. The patent application claims a method for planning a group reading session by receiving a selection of a text to be read in a group reading session, identifying a plurality of participants for the session and automatically generating a reading plan for the group session where the text is divided into a plurality of units and assigned to each of the participants in a way that matches the text difficulty with the reading ability of an individual participant. This system supports collaborative reading exercises in classroom settings, especially for young students who are working on improving literacy.

The Author

Steve Brachmann

Steve Brachmann is a freelance journalist located in Buffalo, New York. He has worked professionally as a freelancer for more than a decade. He writes about technology and innovation. His work has been published by The Buffalo News, The Hamburg Sun, USAToday.com, Chron.com, Motley Fool and OpenLettersMonthly.com. Steve also provides website copy and documents for various business clients and is available for research projects and freelance work.

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