Against Monopoly

defending the right to innovate

Monopoly corrupts. Absolute monopoly corrupts absolutely.

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Clickable Phone Numbers: Obvious or Not?

On August 31st the Wall Street Journal reported that Apple is suing Google, claiming that Android infringes on iOS (iPhone) patents. One of Apple's patents is apparently for the feature of clicking on a phone number in a web page, to make the phone automatically dial that number. That patent should be invalidated immediately, for several reasons:

1. The Palm Treo 650 had clickable phone numbers in emails. When you implement the same idea in a web browser, does that really deserve a patent? No. It's obvious, and we all know that patents have to be "nonobvious" to be valid.

2. If you aren't convinced that this is an obvious idea, take a look at this online web forum of Palm Treo users from 2005. Everyone is saying "This is so obvious! Why doesn't Palm implement this?" And apparently, you could download an app that would make phone numbers clickable in most of your Treo apps.

I found the language of Apple's patent online,* and I can't believe Apple was granted a patent for such a broad claim that was obvious and was pre-existing in prior art. Read this, and then try to tell me our patent system is not broken:

Claim 1: A computer-based system for detecting structures in data and performing actions on detected structures, comprising: an input device for receiving data; an output device for presenting the data; a memory storing information including program routines including an analyzer server for detecting structures in the data, and for linking actions to the detected structures; a user interface enabling the selection of a detected structure and a linked action; and an action processor for performing the selected action linked to the selected structure; and a processing unit coupled to the input device, the output device, and the memory for controlling the execution of the program routines.

Claim 8: The system recited in claim 1, wherein the user interface highlights detected structures.

As I pointed out recently on my own blog, Palm Treo did it first. I admit I'm not an expert in this; perhaps Apple purchased Palm's patent? Is there some legal basis for arguing that Palm's clickable email phone numbers are somehow different from the above language?

In other news on August 31, 2012, a Japanese court ruled against Apple in its lawsuit against Samsung. This fight was over a completely different patent than the seven at issue before the California jury: Apple had a patent on a technique for synchronizing music and video data with servers.

I remain convinced that Apple will eventually lose all of these fights, on the grounds that many of these patents are invalid due either to obviousness, or because the ideas already existed in devices that predated the iPhone.



Assuming that you refer to US patent no. 5,946,647 (http://www.google.com/patents/US5946647), I'm afraid you're applying the wrong standard here:

This patent was filed on 1 Feb 1996, so that you would have to show that the claim was anticipated/obvious by the prior art available before that date.

As far as I know, the Treo 650 came to market in the US only in 2004 (see http://de.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Palm_Treo#section_6), i.e. many years after the effective date of the patent. Apparently, the same applies to the 2005 Web forum mentioned in your post....

Regards, Bastian http://bastianbest.com


You beat me to it, and you are correct. The very first Palm Treo came out in 2002, six years after the Apple patent was filed, and three years after it issued. So online forums in 2005 were only about nine years too late.

So, Keith, no, Palm did not do it first, Apple did. Just read the original post, recognize the facts in the matter (that Palm was in fact not a day late, but years late, and more than a dollar short), and try to tell me that this blog is not broken.

To the two previous posters.

My first phone, from 1998, a Sony Ericsson SH888 automatically highlighted numbers in SMS messages that would allow you to call a number someone sent you.

Since the patent was filed before, yet issued after that phones release, I am unsure you can argue how non‐obvious and uncommon its usage was at the time.

I wonder how many email systems in the 80s and 90s performed the same function without needing a single patent…


It is the filing date that counts. Hence, everything made publicly available on or after 1 Feb 1996 is no "prior art" for the patent and thus irrelevant from a patent law perspective.


With respect to your musing, "I wonder how many email systems in the 80s and 90s performed the same function without needing a single patent…," I would say that the answer is zero. If a single example existed of a phone that would perform that function, then Apple will lose their suit against Google. Since lawsuits tend to be lengthy and expensive, and since the plaintiff rarely wins, more than likely Apple verified the state of the art known in 1996 before proceeding with their suit. No sense starting a suit that is destined to fail long before it ever gets to trial.

Claims are supposed to be broad. Did anybody check the Treo patent to see if they had a license from Apple? I presume they did.

Interestingly, apparently Palm, Amazon and others were sued by some Texas company for infringement. http://www.businessweek.com/news/2011-10-11/amazon-com-righthaven-astrolabe-intellectual-property.html

I was hoping the RFCs might help but RFC 2806 dates from 2000, four years after the patent was filed.


Patents should be for a very specific device supported by real specific design drawings. They should not be for abstract concepts and based on fuzzy "cloud" drawings. Anyone should be allowed to achieve the same claim asserted by the patent holder, provided it is done in a different manner.

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