Posted: September 24, 2015

Contributed by Goran Grbic, Jim Morrison, Daniel Yang and Darko Veselinovic

For more in depth information on these topics and more, download the full iPhone 6s teardown report. 

Force (3D) Touch, Apple’s adoption and what it may mean to the OEM World – an intellectual property perspective

Since Apple’s announcement that new Force (3D) Touch technology will be applied in the new iPhone 6s, the exchange of opinions and speculations is through the roof. Force-based touch, in IP and applications, has been around for a while. For example, Research in Motion (RIM), now BlackBerry, tried, rather unsuccessfully, to employ force touch in their Storm smartphone in 2008; Nokia has patent application US20090256807 on “different levels and directions of force and/or torque directed to the sensor surface” approved in 2009; and TouchNetix has, just this year, announced its “force sensing capacitive pressScreen”. However, the technology never really took off in consumer electronics.

Fast-forward to 2015. Apple first releases a new MacBook (and MacBook Pro) and then an Apple Watch. Both devices employ Force Touch, but in slightly different ways. Then again, just last week, Apple announced that the new iPhones and iPads will make use of Force (3D) Touch to enhance and improve the user interaction experience. While the Apple Watch seems to use only one force threshold, the force touch solution applied in MacBooks appears to be multi-level force touch technology (extracted from several reports and opinions). It seems that this new 3D force Touch technology will be closer to the MacBook solution. 

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Since the launch of the iPhone 3Gs, every time Apple introduces a new user feature, implemented in their products through clever engineering and innovative silicon and/or systems engineering, the rest of the OEM world follows. Suddenly, every phone or tablet or watch must have that same feature.

Will Apple’s use of Force Touch cause wide spread adoption in new consumer products? Will a force-based user experience in smartphones take off as other features have? Here’s what we have recently observed.

China’s Huawei released their force touch-enabled Mate S flagship smartphone at IFA 2015 in Berlin and another Chinese phone maker, ZTE, is expected to soon sell its Axon Mini with Force touch.

Chipworks expects that more phone makers will incorporate Force Touch in their products in the near future to differentiate their smartphones in this highly competitive market. According to The Wall Street Journal’s article by Lorraine Luk which cited market research firm Counterpoint Technology Market Research, the proportion of force touch-enabled smartphones world-wide could rise to 19% of the global smartphone market next year from 3% this year and grow further to 28% in 2017. Meanwhile, it estimated that “the use of technology like 3-D Touch in smartphones could add more than $6 billion in potential revenue to suppliers over the next two years”. The chart below shows the force touch-enabled smartphone penetration rate forecast.  

In this blog, we take a look at the IP landscape for Force Touch devices. In parallel, we have also performed an in-depth study of the technology behind Force Touch as used in the Apple Watch. The report on Force Touch technology and how it was implemented in the Apple Watch can be viewed on the store here. For more information on this report please contact us. 

This week, when the new iPhones hit our labs, we will be conducting similar studies of how Force Touch has been implemented in the new phones. Industry sources speculate that Apple had patented their new 3D Force Touch through the original patent application filed under the Patent Cooperation Treaty (WO2015106183 A1). 

Apple patent application on  Force (3D) Touch

WO2015106183 A1 was filed in January 2015 (priority date of January 2014), together with filings in Australia, China, and Germany. It is interesting, too, that the application is published in the same rather short six month period of time, January to July 2015, in which all other nationally filed applications are published. As we know, by designating a patent application as a Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT) application, the filing date of the applicant's original application with the PCT applies to all subsequent applications with national patent offices. This allows the patent application process to proceed as long as details of the invention were not publicized before the original PCT patent application was filed. This appears to be a very smart, and somewhat expected, move from Apple, if it is proven that this is the actual invention behind the new iPhone 3D Force Touch.

Who is joining the game and who is patenting in the Force Touch area?

On September 2, just a couple of days before Apple’s announcement, Huawei announced its own Android-based smartphone, Mate S, with a Force Touch-inspired pressure sensitive screen. 

So it seems Force Touch technology applications are going to get crowded rather quickly. We decided to investigate who is patenting in the area. In other words, who would be interested in and prepared for potential licensing and litigation? We also wanted to find patents possibly applicable to Apple’s existing and future Force Touch products.

There are already some reports on BlackBerry (then RIM) patenting in the area (US9092057) at the time of their Storm smartphone release in 2008. This report, however, missed the point, since the patents discussed relate more to haptic feedback than to the force touch applied in Apple products.

Who is patenting in the Force Touch area?

A quick keyword search shows us the filing companies. One glaring omission seems to be Huawei. This is odd, as one would expect they will become one of the preferred targets in any potential war. Expect Huawei to go after patent acquisitions.

What are the patented topics?

It is obvious that Force Touch, touch sensors, threshold value, and actuators dominate the filings. See both images below:

Which patents are potentially applicable against Apple (and other) products?

Analyzing patenting companies and patents themselves, two companies appear in the forefront: BlackBerry and Qualcomm. We managed to uncover a couple of examples that we feel are applicable to Apple products:

  • BlackBerry European filing EP2368170 (priority November 2008, filed November 2009, published September 2011) has an interesting story from a family member perspective. It was approved in, more or less, the original application shape, as was its Canadian member, CA2741580. The US application US20100128002, however, had transformed into quite a different shape during prosecution, and the claim language in the published granted patent US9116569 is quite different from its counterparts. Still, in each of the above cases, claim 1 is rather fundamental and, with help from some dependent claims, could be a very good candidate for negotiations in the Force Touch field.
  • Qualcomm’s European filing EP2635957, with its US application family member US2012105358, represents another good candidate against Force Touch applications. Furthermore, these publications can potentially go against multi-level Force Touch, based on the “characteristic of the contact” claim element.
  • There are some other potential candidates, such as Qualcomm’s US8952987 grant and TK Holdings’ US20150097791 application.

Summary

Apple has prepared itself for a potential patent war surrounding existing and future consumer electronic devices that employ force-based touch. Apple is not alone in this space; Qualcomm and BlackBerry are in a good position to benefit as they own IP in similar technology, yet they have less revenue from consumer devices. Then you have OEMs like Huawei that may need to either license IP or acquire IP just so they can offer smartphones employing a market-driven feature like Force Touch.

If smartphones do adopt Force Touch at the rate that we forecast, it could translate into half a billion phones per year by 2017. Assuming a $500 ASP for a smartphone, that means a multibillion dollar market. When revenue figures are this large, interesting things can happen.

For more detailed analysis of the Force Touch technology employed in the Apple Watch, please contact us.

For more in depth information on these topics and more, download the full iPhone 6s teardown report.