Apple's '647 Patent: What It Is and Why it's Bad for the Mobile Ecosystem

In the mobile patent wars, the giant of the ecosystem has one big bludgeon it is using to bully everyone else into subservience. It is a patent known as '647, and it is Apple’s biggest weapon in fighting off the Android hordes, including Motorola, HTC and Samsung. But what exactly is the '647 patent, and how is Apple using it in court?

What is '647?

'647 is short for patent No. 5,946,647, which was filed by Apple in February 1996. It has four listed inventors: James R. Miller (now with Miramontes), Bonnie Nardi (an anthropologist and author who teaches at University of California – Irvine), Tom Bonura (now with Imprivata) and David Wright. The broad scope of the patent is that it is a “system and method for performing an action on a structure in computer-generated data.”

If you are not tech-savvy, that description means almost nothing to you. Even if you are tech-savvy, the patent’s broad scope could mean almost anything. Remember, this patent was granted in 1996, so the inventors likely never envisioned what it could mean for a mobile device such as the iPhone. 

The nickname that patent pundits have given '647 is “data tapping.” Essentially, '647 is an operating system feature that works to receive input into a computing device, store that information, and then retrieve that data and present it on a user interface. Data structures that '647 represent could include calendar events, phone numbers, contact information, etc. So, if you are looking for a phone number in your iPhone, the feature based on the '647 patent will find the relevant data in your device, bring it to the surface of the user interface and let you perform a action with that data, such as making a phone call or sending a text. 

For the geeks, here is the patent abstract: 

“A system and method causes a computer to detect and perform actions on structures identified in computer data. The system provides an analyzer server, an application program interface, a user interface and an action processor. The analyzer server receives from an application running concurrently data having recognizable structures, uses a pattern analysis unit, such as a parser or fast string search function, to detect structures in the data, and links relevant actions to the detected structures. The application program interface communicates with the application running concurrently, and transmits relevant information to the user interface. Thus, the user interface can present and enable selection of the detected structures, and upon selection of a detected structure, present the linked candidate actions. Upon selection of an action, the action processor performs the action on the detected structure.”

How Apple Wields '647

If you are a major Android manufacturer, you are not immune from Apple’s '647 sword. HTC has run into a '647 patent lawsuit from Apple not once or twice, but three times. The most recent was just this last month when the U.S. International Trade Commission temporarily banned imports of the HTC One X and HTC Evo 4G LTE because of the '647, despite the contention HTC made that it had figured out a way around it. 

Earlier this month, Apple swung the '647 at its biggest smartphone rival, Samsung, to try and block the soon-to-be blockbuster Android Samsung Galaxy S III from reaching U.S. shores. A California judge shot down Apple’s request to ban the product at launch (slated for June 21), and the two companies go to trial in July. And Apple and Motorola have been battling over patents for years now, with both sides lobbing bombs at the other. Of 15 patents that Apple contended Motorola had violated concerning cell phone interfaces, one was the '647. 

Last week, Motorola won a reprieve - and patent watchers rejoiced - when a judge in Chicago essentially tossed the Apple-Motorola case out of court. Judge Richard A. Posner of U.S. District Court for the District of Illinois threw out the case because, he ruled, neither side could rightfully claim damages against the other. Extrapolating Posner’s ruling, it was litigation for the sake of litigation. Nobody wins in that scenario: Not the companies, not the consumers, not the innovators building on top of the technology that has come before. The lawyers and their bank accounts, by proxy, are really the only winners. 

There are several other patents that Apple wields in court. Some of them are pertinent patents that Apple was granted as part of creating the iPhone. Many of them are not; they are just notches in Apple’s portfolio of being one of the first giant consumer hardware and software companies. 

Android Linkify

Apple has not directly gone after Google in court over any patents. It prefers to do its battle in the open market (see: iOS Maps and Siri) and in court against Google’s top hardware partners. Really though, HTC, Samsung and Motorola are not directly responsible for what goes into the operating system upon which they are building. Yes, those companies all add their own tweaks to Android, but when it comes to the '647, this is a Google issue more than a manufacturer issue. 

The closest function that correlates to '647 within the Android code base is called Linkify. In Android, Linkify is a way to turn a line of text within the operating system into an actionable link. This is how Android defines Linkify:

“Linkify takes a piece of text and a regular expression and turns all of the regex matches in the text into clickable links. This is particularly useful for matching things like email addresses, web urls, etc. and making them actionable.”

So, why is Apple suing HTC, Motorola and Samsung over the '647 and not Google? The easiest answer to that is that there is little purpose in suing Google over anything in Android. Oracle just found that out the hard way. Google positions Android as an open-source project, and just about anyone can do anything with it that they want. In many ways, that is good for innovation; check out some of the stuff being done around the Android@Home project. There is some huge potential to have a lightweight operating system in the world upon which anybody can build. Android is also built off of Linux and Java, which are both open-source technologies as well. Suing Google is akin to taking a shot at the entire principle of the open-source community. 

It is also not profitable. What would Apple hope to attain by suing Google over Linkify and asserting the '647 patent for the purpose of stopping Android? Google, while being the focal point of everything Android, does not actually control the platform. It exerts a vast amount of influence over it, but that does not directly mean it controls it. See Amazon’s use of Android to build the Kindle Fire and its Appstore for Android. While Google cannot be very happy about the Kindle Fire, letting Amazon do as it wishes is an important legal shield for Google. 

Google also does not directly make its own devices (not yet, at least). There is nothing tangible for Apple to sue. It is like trying to box with a ghost. You throw a great punch and it passes right through: You know the ghost is there, you just cannot touch it. The real, physical extension of Android is through the manufacturers, and to Apple, they pose the real threat. Android smartphones and tablets on store shelves next to iPhones and iPads are not branded with “Google” on them; they say HTC, Samsung, Motorola, LG, Huawei, ZTE and more. So, while '647 is most directly related to Android code originating from Google, it behooves Apple to go after the hardware ecosystem.

Why the '647 is bad for the Mobile Ecosystem

The '647 is a patent from a different era. It was created and filed during the time before Steve Jobs came back to Apple in 1997 from NeXT. The iPhone was just a glimmer in Apple’s eye, and the company was struggling. The idea of connecting mobile devices to the Internet with dynamic user interfaces was pre-embryonic, and the first of those devices would not be seen for a couple more years.

Apple spokespeople have continually contended that “blatant copying of its devices is wrong.” Google spokespeople retort that all the patent litigation is a derivative of “too many vague software patents.” While the '647 is just one aspect of Apple devices, it shows up in nearly every patent lawsuit the company brings. Is the '647 being blatantly copied, or is it a vague software patent? Considering its history, that question is fairly easy to answer. 

But Apple has found legal power in the patent and applied it to something that it probably was never intended to cover. It also covers a very basic function that hardly seems like it should be proprietary to one particular company. The fact is, every one of the large technology companies has patents that cover something as basic as the “data tapping” patent. 

What does the '647 really do? Yes, it may actually be a system for retrieving data and turning it into an actionable item, but in reality it is a piece of paper whose primary role in 2012 is to curb Apple’s mobile competition. It is an important patent, but not in the way that patents were intended to be used. 

Apple also has to move quickly. The '647 patent expires in 2016, after which Apple will no longer be able to use it in court. There will be other patents for the lawyers to play with, but so far '647 has been the most effective. The clock is ticking, and new Android devices are released almost every day.

The '647 patent has the possibility of putting HTC out of business. That would be a shame for everybody that cares about mobile innovation and consumer choice.