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New Apple keyboard patent may spell trouble for Android

Threat level hinges on lawyers' cunning

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The US Patent and Trademark Office has handed Apple's legal team what may turn out to be a powerful weapon in their ongoing battles against anyone with the temerity to launch products competitive with the iPhone and iPad: a patent on soft keyboards that modify their keys with the tap of an on-screen button.

Granted on Tuesday, US Patent 8,179,731, "Method, system, and graphical user interface for selecting a soft keyboard", describes the soft keyboard familiar to any iOS or Android tablet or smartphone user, in which letter keys are replaced by number keys or symbol keys when the appropriate layout-changing button is tapped.

There is, however, a subtle but important distinction between this newly granted patent and the tablet or smartphone keyboards that users have come to love or loathe: Apple's patent describes a system in which a user chooses his or her desired keyboard by tapping either buttons with such identifiers as "A B C" or "1 2 3", or buttons in the form of what the patent describes as "demagnified" images of the various soft keyboards from which the user can choose.

The buttons described in the patent, however, are separate from the keyboards themselves, and can even "float" above the keyboard or text area being displayed. As anyone who has used current iOS or Android soft keyboards knows, their soft keyboards are accessed by tapping keys with letter number or symbol identifiers that are part of the displayed keyboard.

Apple soft-keyboard selection patent illustration

One example provided in Apple's patent shows 'demagnified' keyboard images floating above the display

From our wrestling with the 5,600 words of convoluted patentese that comprises US Patent 8,179,731, it would appear to our layman's eye that the "embodiments" described therein are sufficiently different from current soft-keyboard designs and layouts, and that there should be little for Cupertino's competitors to worry about.

We hasten to admit, however, that we are not patent lawyers.

After all, Apple's legal team found it perfectly reasonable to go after Samsung in a look-and-feel lawsuit based on an Apple design patent that included, among other assertions, the complaint that Samsung's Galaxy S smart phone used icons that had "rounded corners". Head-of-pin choreography is a highly prized specialty in the intellectual property professions.

There may not be enough in Monday's patent for Apple to claim full ownership of the concept of "making operational ... the plurality of soft keyboards", but we're willing to bet that there are sufficient inferences of implied ownership to keep legal teams busy far into the future, should Apple find that doing so might be in its interest. ®

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