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Apple's iPhone targeted by vaguely generic mobile patent

A company that filed a broad and extremely vague patent application for a mobile device with web features has filed suit against Apple, claiming the iPhone's general concept violates its intellectual property.

The patent, filed by NetArirus in 1999 and granted by the United States Patent and Trademark Office in 2006, describes "a small light weight modular microcomputer based computer and communications systems, designed for both portability and desktop uses."

It includes an abstract description that defines the "use of a relative large flat panel display device assembly," "an expandable hinge device" that the iPhone lacks, a "battery power source," a "keyboard assembly" the iPhone does not have, "and wireless communications devices."

The patent describes the "invention" as systems "capable of bi-directional realtime communications of voice, audio, text, graphics and video data."

It also notes, "an objective of this invention is to provide for full Internet access on a wireless mobile platform, where the user can access the World Wide Web and execute most of the available Internet browser functions and plug-ins," although the iPhone OS does not support web plugins of any kind, including Flash, Silverlight, and Java.

"The computer system would be capable of performing most of the Internet data access, download, upload and conferencing functions," the abstract continues, despite the fact that the iPhone OS does not actually support file uploads or any conferencing features (at least not yet; iPhone OS 4 is expected to add iChat features).

The patent serves as an example of how the USPTO's approval process needs to be reformed to actually serve the needs of inventors and producers, rather than just entertaining the notion of granting broad rights to nebulous ideas.

Apple has a history of invalidating patents rather than paying to avoid lawsuits, making it odd that NetArirus chose to pick the company as its first target, rather than going after other smartphone and mobile device makers that may be more likely to simply settle out of court.

One example of this is Burst.com, which obtained a $60 million settlement from Microsoft in 2005 before targeting Apple with identical claims related to multimedia playback. While many observers anticipated Burst.com would get even more from Apple, the company fought the validity of Burst's patents and was able to nullify 14 of the 36 claims in 2007. Apple settled with Burst for just $10 million, of which Burst received about $4.6 million after its legal fees and expenses.