Calif. — A computer mouse that doubles as a scanner. A
coating that keeps gadgets safe and dry even in the
event of a spill. And a smartphone that rotates like a
cat midair to avoid landing on its pretty glass face.
may not see them on shelves anytime soon, but they are
among the inventions that Apple protected in 2014 as it
took in a bumper crop of new patents. The U.S. Patent
and Trademark Office granted Apple 2,003 utility
patents, which recognize new and useful processes and
machines. That’s a 13 percent increase over 2013 and
more than triple the company’s 2010 haul, according to
IFI Claims, a patent analysis firm. The steady increase
in patents comes as Apple is doubling down on research
and development, pouring $6 billion into its labs in
fiscal year 2014, which ended in September. The
investments suggest the company is laying the groundwork
to find its next lucrative products, recognizing that it
can’t coast if it wants to stay in investors’ good
graces, Gartner analyst Van Baker said.
you’re that big, and you want to continue to grow at a
rate that the market is going to reward, you have to
expand your business," he said.
companies commonly patent ideas they do not ultimately
use, the evolving makeup of Apple’s portfolio points
to spaces the company may be mining for future growth.
Among other areas, the company has amassed more
intellectual property related to television, a household
staple ripe for reinvention, and cybersecurity, one of
the tech industry’s greatest headaches after a series
of worrisome hacks.
tech titan’s burgeoning patent portfolio mirrors a
shift underway in Silicon Valley and across the globe as
companies worldwide are racing to protect nearly
everything their engineers come up with, said Larry
Cady, vice president of product marketing at IFI Claims.
Grants climbed more than 8 percent to cross the 300,000
threshold for the first time in 2014, with many
companies besting their records. Apple ranked 11th on
IFI’s list of top patent recipients and, in the Bay
Area, second only to Google, which took eighth place
with 2,566 patents in 2014, up nearly 39 percent from
the previous year. IBM brought home the most patents, as
it has for 22 years running, and valley stalwarts such
as Hewlett-Packard and Cisco also showed solid gains,
upping their tallies by 16 percent and 24 percent,
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Cady says many companies are investing more in research
and development, he suspects they are also building
their portfolios with an eye toward the courtroom, where
they can use their patents as either a sword to try to
knock out competing products or a shield against such
attacks. Cady thinks it’s more than coincidental that
Apple, Google and Samsung — the three key players in a
series of high-stakes patent trials over smartphone
technology that have been unfolding in San Jose federal
court — are among the top patent recipients this year.
you can’t beat them, join them," David Maizenberg,
who consults on intellectual property matters, said of
the patent race.
patent gives a company the right to use an invention
exclusively for a limited period of time. But the
trade-off is that the firm must offer up a glimpse of
what it is working on, which is notoriously hard to come
by at Apple headquarters.
spokesman for Apple declined to comment on the company’s
to data supplied by IFI, the types of technology for
which Apple won the most patents in 2014 were computer
graphics, mobile communications and computer software.
That suggests the company is continuing to focus on its
strengths, such as the powerhouse iPhone, which drives
more than half its sales.
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the company also has steadily earned more patents
related to television, bringing home 73 in 2014, up from
28 in 2012 and a mere eight in 2011, according to IFI.
That may be good news for Apple fans and investors who
have long been waiting for the company to reimagine the
television set. One patent granted in December describes
technology that would stream content simultaneously on a
fixed device such as an Apple TV and a portable gadget
such as a smartphone, letting users leave their living
rooms to grab snacks without missing a moment of their
favorite shows. Another patent describes a new-age wand
that users would wave to pick shows, rather than
clicking old-fashioned remotes.
company’s patent portfolio also suggests a growing
interest in security, with grants related to information
security climbing 44 percent to 39 patents and grants
related to cryptography climbing 25 percent to 15
patents, according to IFI. The company must keep
security top of mind as it designs its gadgets, Baker
an important consideration in mobile devices because we’re
living in a world where there are more and more threats
in terms of malware, cyberespionage, identity theft and
hacks," he said.
tracks utility patents, the most common type of award
granted by the patent office.
be sure, patents are an imperfect predictor of future
products, often revealing more about the breadth of
engineers’ imaginations than the next gadgets they
plan to build.
companies are just covering themselves for research they’ve
invested in, even though it’s not really in the
product road map," Cady said.
when it comes to Apple, the faintest possibility of a
new device is enough to cause investors to sit up and
take notice. Patently Apple, a blog that tracks patent
filings from Apple, recently spotted that the company
had earned a patent for a wearable video camera that
sounded a lot like GoPro’s specialty. The
action-camera maker’s stock sank about 12 percent on
the threat some perceive to GoPro, many ideas Apple
pitched to the patent office last year don’t seem
ready for market. One patent the company earned
described an elaborate system to protect mobile phones
when they fall. Sketches show a smartphone using sensors
to change its orientation so it lands on a metal side
and deploying jets, fans and gas canisters to slow its
descent. Meanwhile, particularly delicate parts of the
device such as the screen and home button would retract
the bid for an indestructible iPhone, Apple also landed
a patent for a coating that would cause moisture to form
beads, posing less danger to delicate electronics. The
company also dreamed up creative accessories for the
Mac. One patent covers a computer mouse that uses a
sensor to capture the images it glides over and then
displays them on its face.
other instances, Apple appeared to be thinking further
outside the bounds of its current product lineup. The
company won a patent for a display that would allow
users to view real-world objects with information
overlaid, perhaps telling tourists more about the sites
they’re glimpsing through the windows of a bus.
of what Apple has cooking in its tightly veiled labs,
experts say it is encouraging to see patent grants and
R&D spending on the rise.
take it as a strong indication that innovation is alive
and well at the company," said Stephen Haber, a
senior fellow at Stanford University and the Hoover