The Apple Watch has created a lot of interest since its recent announcement. It appears to comprise several different innovations, with perhaps the most important feature being that it is designed to work in close cooperation with an iPhone. This is a quite a change to say what many people had earlier imagined as a smartwatch, such as the Samsung’s 2009 phone watch. However this does provide more design options as it reduces the requirement for the watch to be all inclusive
But did Apple invent this concept? Did they, in the words of Apple CEO Tim Cook, “invent their own stuff“?
The answer to this question, as is so often the case, found in the patent literature. A search for US patents filed by Apple that refer to the word ‘watch’ brings up a few early patents that refer to compact antennas, but in April 2007 three key patents were filed.
These were all filed on the same day, and share the title Personal area network systems and devices and methods for use thereof. These patents were
These patents disclose:
Systems and methods are provided for interfacing wireless communications between two devices such that a device devoid of a relatively long-range communications protocol can access that protocol. This may be accomplished by providing a host device having relatively short-range communications circuitry integrated therein, which circuitry may be operative to communicate with relatively short-range communications circuitry of a multi-protocol or long-range communications device that also includes relatively long-range communications circuitry.
While the patent often refers to the host device as a media player such as an iPod, there is a later reference to a watch
In other embodiments, peripheral devices may communicate with the host device or a hybrid host/long-range communications device (e.g., a phone including short range communications circuitry) using a short range communications protocol. … The peripheral device can be used to control the operation of the host or hybrid device or may be used to display information relating to a function or feature of the host or hybrid device. For example, a peripheral device may be a fashion accessory such as a watch that may display information (e.g., the name of the currently playing song or name of the person on the call) and also allow a user to control functions (e.g., playback, volume, or telephony features such as end call and accept call) of the host device
The benefit of the patent system is that it can be very easy to find related patents. In our case, Ambercite has developed AmberScope to easily navigate the patent literature. AmberScope includes a similarity filter which can quickly identify the most similar patents to a patent of interested. These can include ‘earlier’ prior art patents. An example of the use of AmberScope is shown below (click on the image to see a dynamic form inside AmberScope):
In this case, we looked at all three of the above patents into AmberScope and looked at the closest prior art. For the US8364139 patent, the closest prior art turned out to be US7652660, filed in 2006 for a Mobile device customizer. Again, this does not directly refer to a smartwatch, but instead is aimed at a handheld control device for a smartphone.
A method and system for customizing a mobile host device is disclosed. An accessory device for interfacing with and customizing a mobile host device includes a communication channel designed to establish a bi-directional communication link between the accessory device and the host device
However, further down the specification the applicant describes what is become the Apple Watch:
In yet another implementation, the auxiliary input accelerator device may be a digital wristwatch incorporating the functionality of the input accelerator device. Digital wrist watches, especially running or exercise watches, typically have a digital display and a number of buttons for tracking lap times, heart rate and other important biostatistics. They also typically have a larger surface area than typical wrist watches. These watches may readily be programmed and retrofitted with optional additional sensor arrays to be used as an input accelerator for the host device.
This patent has a priority date of October 2005, some 18 months before Apple filed their patents.
Who owns this patent now?
This patent has had a series of owners, but it now owned by Japanese based Aplix Corporation. Aplix have developed electronic modules that allow the likes of RC toys and coffee machines to be controlled by smartphones.
Does Apple need a license to this patent?
We might leave this question to others better qualified. However what this example does show is how easy it can be to find to licenscisng risks and opportunities for key patents. This is also possible for whole patent portfolios.