Google: Unlocking The Door For More Android Originality?

It sometimes feels like an absurd story without an ending, trying to track who is attacking whom in the mobile patent game, and who is “winning.” But Google has now secured one patent that may just demonstrate that companies are figuring out ways of getting around would-be infringement issues — and possibly lead to producing more differentiated products in the process.

A Google patent, published by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, looks like it could pave the way for a new way of unlocking a mobile device. The news comes just as Android-handset maker Motorola, which Google is in the process of acquiring, got a ruling against it in Germany for another mobile unlock patent, in an ongoing case filed by Apple.

Apple’s case in Germany rests on the slide-to-unlock gesture, something that Apple has been enforcing against other handset makers as well, such as Samsung — filing a case against the Korean handset maker in California just earlier this week.

In Germany, a court in Munich yesterday determined that Motorola violated those same Apple slide-to-unlock patents in its Android-based smartphone devices — although its Xoom tablets, for what it’s worth, were spared in the ruling.

Florian Mueller notes the ruling carries the possibility of a permanent injunction on it — although it will be up to Apple whether it decides to enforce it, and Motorola has already said it would appeal the decision and that it did not think the decision would have a material impact on sales. It could also modify this feature in its devices though a software update.

If what Motorola says is true — that sales would not be affected by this ruling — what else is at stake here?

There is an argument to be made that there are still too many features that are similar between different, competing smartphones. Android has so far been the clear winner in smartphone market share — with the operating system accounting for the majority of smartphone sales worldwide at the moment. But most individual device makers are not creating distinctive enough products to sell at volumes that compete with Apple and the very biggest of the Android makers, such as Samsung.

At the moment, with Android, some of the most distinctive implementations have been those where handset makers “fork” the OS, although that leads to fragmentation and difficulties further down the development chain.

That’s where Google’s new patent comes in handy. New methods for unlocking will include moving icons from one screen to another, text inputs and voice commands. But as Patently Apple notes, these elements could run together or separately.

This is the direction that Google will hopefully keep moving. If and when this patent gets implemented, it presents one more building block for Android handset makers not only to get around Apple’s legal complaints — but for them to figure out ways of making their products different from each other’s, while still remaining in Google’s ecosystem and not straying too far from the Android flock.

(Image: Glenn, Flickr)