There has been a lot of interest of late in a patent filed (by Google) back in 2009 for what is obviously a rendition of Android's notification bar system. There are a number of pretty (well, as pretty as black and white gets) figures in the patent showing the notification bar we all know and love, and lots of language about notification systems and the like.

As many of the Android-faithful know, Apple recently implemented as part of iOS 5 the "Notification Center," and it looks an awful lot like Android's in some respects. This immediately drew criticism from the Android community, with many claiming that Apple had essentially "ripped off" Google's implementation, and has been a sore subject ever since.

So when news of this notification patent started spreading, many were quick to hold it up as Android's newest weapon against Apple's legal onslaught. No doubt, it also bestowed a sense of vindication among Android fans - who's got the patents now, Apple? But it's just not that simple, and I'm going to show you why. But first, we need to talk a little about patents.

Claims, Claims, Claims

If you're not versed in how one goes about filing (or, as is said in the legal profession, prosecuting) a patent, you may not know how a patent is basically structured.

Essentially, you have:

  • The abstract: this is a brief summary of the invention.
  • Field of invention: the type of invention this is (mostly for filing organization purposes).
  • Figures: Pictures of the invention.
  • Prior art: Where you explain how your invention is not like and improves on problems with existing, related inventions in the field (if any).
  • Consistory clauses: An explanation of why and how this invention's claims are useful.
  • Specific description: An area where technical terms and concepts relating to how the invention functions in a more low-level, detailed, and scientific manner are explained.
  • What is claimed: This is what matters - this is where you state what your invention does, and in individual clauses called claims, the unique ways it does or can do those things. This is what the patent office and courts look at (primarily) when determining the scope and validity of a patent, as well as the liability of potential infringers.

Now, the specific description of the invention is generally important when determining how to actually interpret the claim language of a patent, and for figuring out if two similar inventions that accomplish similar tasks are actually, technically similar enough that one must be infringing the other. These kinds of questions are so technical and far beyond the average person's knowledge that they're often left to judges to decide in what are called "claim construction" hearings through the use of so-expensive-it-would-make-you-sick expert witnesses.

They're always a relevant issue, and always debated in patent lawsuits, especially in high-tech cases, but we'll only be looking at this section as it applies specifically to some of the claim language, and in a pretty simple way.

What we're here to talk about are claims, then.

When you are accused of infringing a patent, you aren't accused of infringing the whole patent. You're accused of infringing a claim (or multiple claims) therein. This makes it far easier for courts and juries to understand and narrow down what's really at issue in an infringement case, and it makes it simpler for the patent office to deconstruct what the patentee actually wants to patent. Claims are further made up of "elements," and in order to show infringement, every element of the claim in question must be infringed by the accused infringer.

The first claim of a patent will often be one that describes generally what the invention is and what it does, in a reasonably specific enough manner that isn't overbroad or vague. Subsequent claims will often be dependent on the first claim (or dependent on a claim that is dependent on the first claim), describing specific ways the first claim may be implemented. Being too broad or vague will result in a claim being invalidated (in court or on reexamination) or narrowed (during patent prosecution), while being too specific can limit your ability to protect the invention - it's a balancing act patent lawyers are constantly at odds with.

Basically, the claims need to sync up with what is described in the specific description section - if a claim could be interpreted to extend beyond the scope of the invention as described, it has to be narrowed or stricken from the patent.

Still with me? I know, it's getting complicated - but we're about to reach the meaty part of the discussion, and you probably need this primer to really understand what I'm about to explain.

So, What Does This Have To Do With The Notification Bar?

Everything. Let's talk about the claims in Google's patent application, shall we? US20090249247A1 (catchy name, eh?) was filed over 3 years ago - January 2009, by Erick Tseng, then a senior project manager for Android at Google (he now works for Facebook).

In this patent, titled "Notification of Mobile Device Events," I have identified what amount to three major claims of a total 22. Because this is only an application, Google's lawyers have drafted a "dream team" of claims. It's a common practice in patent law (and frankly, all types of law) to over-file to some extent, and then negotiate down to what's actually realistic.

Case-in-point is Google's 4th major claim, #21, which claims the following:

21. A computer-implemented notification system, comprising:

a wireless interface to receive data that includes messages for a user of a mobile device;

a notification manager, operable on a computer processor, to generate a notification message for a received message that includes information that describes the message; and

means for generating a display of information corresponding to the notification message on a graphical display.

Here, Google is attempting to claim, basically, the entire concept of a notification system. It seems possible, even likely, that this could be interpreted as covering Apple's (or even Palm's) older notification implementation, or any kind of pop-up notification. This one is a definite longshot.

But let's hop over to the first major claim. It seems likely to me, upon examining the language carefully, it would be infringed by Apple's Notification Center. Here's claim #1:

1. A computer-implemented user notification method, comprising:

displaying, in a status area near a perimeter of a graphical interface for a mobile device, a notification of a recent alert event for the mobile device, wherein the alert event corresponds to a change in status of an application operating on the mobile device or of an account associated with the mobile device;

receiving a selection in the status area by a user of the mobile device; and

in response to the receipt of the selection, displaying, in a central zone of the graphical interface, detail regarding a plurality of alert events for the mobile device, wherein at least some of the plurality of alert events correspond to messages received by the mobile device and the detail includes text from the messages.

You'll note that I've highlighted the phrase "in a status area." There's a good reason for this - this is what we call limiting language. Google has confined the definition of this claim to include only implementations of a notification event in the "status area." Of course, what is a status area? Google defines it earlier in the application as the following:

... a peripheral area at the edge of a display, such as a status area, or status bar, for the mobile device. The status bar is the area in which status indicators such as battery charge level and signal strength level are traditionally displayed—typically at the top of a display.

What is less clear is how the language "in a status area" would exactly be interpreted. Watch this video of a notification being received in iOS 5. The issue is that the iOS 5 notification does not go in the status area - it replaces the status area with an entirely different graphical element. And while locked, it doesn't go in the status area at all (it goes underneath the clock).

ios5 noti screen_20120217_1625

Compare the instant the notification arrives and how it appears in relation to the status bar.

Yes, such minute distinctions are actually relevant to the debate here, because it is undoubtedly a point Apple's legal counsel would hammer on when denying an accusation of infringement.

Google's implementation, on the other hand, merely clears the status bar of all battery, signal, and other information in order to display the notification - actually utilizing the status bar. At this point, I would probably call to a concept called the "doctrine of equivalents," which (to oversimplify it a bit) basically says that if one invention doesn't actually literally infringe on the language of a patent claim, if it works in essentially the same way to achieve essentially the same end goal, it's still infringing.

This kind of argument may come down to coding implementations or other technical details, though - so I won't delve into it further. But there is a reason that the first claim should be interpreted to include Apple's implementation. The second claim specifically encompasses the method by which Google provides notifications in Android:

2. The method of claim 1, wherein the notification is displayed in place of battery and signal elements in a status bar that comprises the status area of the graphical interface.

This would, by simple logic, mean that claim #1's definition of "in a status area" encompasses implementations beyond the one Google uses (placement in the actual status bar). At least, that's the argument I'd make.

The "selection in a status area" language merely means that the user provides some sort of input in the status area (where the notification immediately populates) to learn more about the notification - either a pull-down or a press (iOS does both, Android usually only does the pull-down method, except on tablets). iOS clearly infringes on this element.

The third clause about a "central zone" of the GUI displaying "text from the messages" refers to the whole notification center pull-down that aggregates notifications and, if applicable, makes some mention of their content. It's pretty obvious Apple's implementation infringes on that element of the claim, as well. Just compare to Android:

screen_20120217_1633_2 53829

Note that both pull down via the status bar, both aggregate multiple notifications, and both display some of the content of messages.

Although obviously different aesthetically, the concept as defined in the above element from claim #1, without a doubt, describes both of these notification systems.

Another, broader claim by Google (though not as broad as #21) is #18:

18. A computer-implemented notification system, comprising:

a wireless interface to receive data for a user of a mobile computing device;

a notification manager to generate a notification message for a device event, including device events received through the wireless interface, where the notification message includes information that describes the device event;

a display manager, operable with a computer processor, to generate elements for a graphical display, to receive the notification message and to present the notification message in a first zone near a perimeter of the graphical display; and

an electronic input device to receive a user selection in the first zone, wherein in response to the user selection, the display manager displays, in a central zone of the graphical interface, detail information regarding a plurality of recent messaging events for the mobile device.

Based on the language here, I would say that this claim attempts to patent any system by which notifications are sent to a device, and that causes them to appear in or around a "status area" (a "first zone near a perimeter") which can than be selected to display a centralized list of notifications. This is definitely broader than claim #1, and almost certainly would be infringed on by iOS 5's Notification Center. But there's one big caveat I haven't mentioned yet about this whole patent.

Published vs. Issued: In Limbo

You'll notice that if you try to find this patent in the USPTO's public database, it's not there. That's because this patent is still in the process of prosecution, meaning language changes, potential removal of some claims, and amendments are probably all still being worked out between Google and the patent office.

Under US law, you can sue for damages caused during the published but yet-to-be-issued phase, but not until the patent is actually issued. This is why Google has yet to sue Apple, at least that's the case if we're assuming Google would want to sue Apple at all on this patent. In fact, we don't even know if Google will get this patent in the first place, prior art could very possibly kill it, and I'm sure Apple and others are working hard to generate all the prior art they can to make that happen.

At this point, we'll just have to wait and see how this patent looks when (and if) it comes out of the patent office, and it's hard to say when that could be - the average patent issuance wait is rapidly approaching 4 years for software. Expect it to be even longer for one that is likely to be as hotly disputed as this.

David Ruddock
David's phone is whatever is currently sitting on his desk. He is an avid writer, and enjoys playing devil's advocate in editorials, and reviewing the latest phones and gadgets. He also doesn't usually write such boring sentences.

  • jjrudey

    Nobody cared until this was posted on Reddit the other day.

    • Danny

      Android Police is pretty much Reddit in blog form anyway.

      • http://www.AndroidPolice.com Artem Russakovskii

        By that logic, so is every other website.

        • Jon Garrett

          what does it matter, news is news--who cares who printed it first.

          this site is by far the best Android site out of the 30+ that I visit daily.

    • http://www.androidpolice.com David Ruddock

      I've noticed plenty of blogs posting on this patent, and thought I would attempt to provide some real, critical insight into the matter. We report on what's going on in the world of Android news, and clearly, this has been a topic of discussion, regardless of the point of genesis.

      • Jon Garrett

        Great reporting, keep up the good work. ignore the haters and the critics. this site rocks.

      • Eric

        Yup, nice job. I'm here to discover different opinions and insights for Android news. I'm not here to read news..

      • sriracha

        exactly. i come here to read what AP has to say about android, not because AP posts everything first. i value the writers more than the topics.

      • Owen L

        Great report, really interesting.

        But couldn't help noticing, there is a 'T' missing in the 3rd paragraph down, 2nd line up... sorry, for some reason I can't help it, it's like a strange impulse to correct mistakes... :-(

        Loved the article though, and the legal perspective :-)

        • http://www.AndroidPolice.com Artem Russakovskii

          Thanks for spotting that, I fixed it up.

      • http://gadgetstip.com aatif

        Really Great post ! I love to read here everything about android . You guys rock

  • The_Omega_Man

    Where did you get that Notification Bar Toggle settings app? What is it called?

    • David Ruddock

      That is an AOSP CM9 build, so, not sure where else you can get it.

      • jm

        It's also included in Peter Alfonso's Bugless Beast ICS roms.

    • http://fc1032.blogspot.com Brian

      Seems to be included in most custom ICS roms

      Medroid for Nexus one has it,
      CM9 for GT7 has it
      Manhattan for Gnex has it (as do many other Gnex roms)

    • Cliffy

      What you’re looking for is the CMSettingks.apk. That’s what is used to make the changes to the notification bar that you see on David’s phone. After I did some research, I found the apk posted on XDA’s site here:
      I tried to install this on my GSM Galaxy Nexus using ADB install, but I get an error: Failure [INSTALL_FAILED_SHARED_USER_INCOMPATIBLE]. I’m not rooted so that may have some barring on why it’s not working for me. I’ve been meaning to root my phone so I’m probably going to do it to see if that works. Let me know if anyone gets it working as I’m really interested in getting this on my Galaxy Nexus.

  • Stocklone

    How can this be the best idea we have for encouraging innovation? We need to be innovative in the field of encouraging innovation.

    • http://riteshtripathy.wordpress.com Ritesh Tripathy

      I know. But try telling Apple that.

  • jesi

    Why dont you do a piece on some of apple's patent and how they win injunctions with vague claims... if apple can have patents for the shape of iphone, and use it to win injunctions, then google should also be able to do that

  • http://buggin.me Phil

    Prior art should kill many patents but thats not what happens. I don't think theres a need to set up for a let down. If the broken patent office holds true to form we'll see a fight sometime down the road. If it doesn't then we know theres some preferential treatment going on and it would become rather obvious.

    Now how about an article on the damage this would cause to iOS if they had to remove drop down notifications lol.

  • BoneThugs

    You cannot sue for damages until you get a patent.

  • http://www.mycellife.net Bradley

    Apple still should pay for this, it's a blatant rip-off. Even if they try to disguise it, it's still a drop down menu anyway you look at it. And if Apple get away from this, then Samsung has to get away from the slide to unlock in the Galaxy Nexus

  • koohyar

    Excellent article! I've been fondly following Android's legal issues and this is by far the best professionally downgraded to common knowledge insight I have been offered!
    Thank you and I will sure be looking forward to more! :)\.

  • Sherwyn

    More than anything we assume that Google files for patents to shield itself from attacks of Apple etc while Apple files for patents to "Annihilate" competition :D

  • http://phonecompanies.blogspot.com/ Phone Companies

    this is just a series of endless war between Apple and Google

  • Kevin Gaudin

    Thanks for this article. When others simply react on patents drawings without having read (and/or understood) the text and any consequence of it, it's great to know that some people at Android Police can actually read legal stuff and explain it with adequate clarity to their readers.

  • Riggs

    Nice article. I like how you didn't take a biased approach. You just gave us facts. As an apple and android user I often switch back and forth but I gotta keep up with the news. And it's nice that you could of went anti apple rant but you didn't. Thank you.

  • Brandon

    Thanks for taking the time to put this piece together! It really helps to sum up the nitty-gritty of the patent process that normally I don't think many Android users get to see beyond the Apple-Samsung kerfuffle.

  • Darktanone

    If Google gets this one, I'd be surprised. As I see it, the status bar from Mac OS 9 had the same functionality and it was first available on PowerBooks (a mobile device). I see features from Mac OS X modified and used in Android. So this would be the mother of all patents war, and I think Apple would prevail. I don't think anything in Android is original. A lot of the features were borrowed/stolen and that is why there are so many lawsuits. I don't think Apple wants to sue. They have to. They gave fair warning at the introduction of the iPhone that they patented a lot of the features. Google and their partners chose to ignore the warning and now they're crying foul. I don't feel a bit of sympathy for them and I think the IP owners should continue hitting them with lawsuits until they crumble.

    • mohnish

      Apple has been a copy cat ever since its inception, the mouse is the only invention they ever made. The rest has been a redesign of other ideas. And to talk about such patents what if i were to patent the use of my mouth to eat or drink im sure the us patent court would grant it, but is that logical?

    • gmaninvan

      This is ridiculous. I would love when people make blind statements like this that they actually back it up with even a single example.

      Android is not a copy of iOS. The OS actually operates more similar to BBOS7.

      It had, originally, centralized home screen that was customizable with a notification drawer. This is exactly like BBOS, WinMo6, and Symbian. iOS just decided to forego the homescreen.

      the iPhone as not the first mobile device to have:

      - An App store
      - A grid interface
      - A swipe unlock feature (thank the scandinavians for that)
      - A mobile browser

      Tell me, what exactly did android so blatantly copy from the iPhone?

      iOS 5 in particular copied a ton of features from Android. The one thing you are right on is that Apple has to sue. This is mainly because they have proven over their last three releases that they cannot innovate on par with their competitors. This seems likely to be, to them, the way they remain competitive.

      Both Android and Windows Phone have now surpassed iOS in usability and interface efficiency.

  • Mike

    Has Apple actually straightforward sued Google yet, or is Apple still only suing Android manufacturers like Samsung, HTC, and Motorola?

  • Steve

    I, for one, am sick of the running legal battles. We, as customers, benefit from the innovations that occur from the competitive atmosphere. Our products improve with the minor attempts at reverse engineering, making our devices improve at a rate not possible in a less competitive environment. They win over customers with superior products, not great legal presentations. Wave the white flags, guys, and get back to doing business.

  • io53

    iOS notification bar looks a lot better than androids :/

    • Michael Parker

      I would say the opposite, iOS looks gaudy and over-pronounced compared to ICS's toned down minimalist look. Seems android is an inverse of iOS in that the hardware is pronounced and at least in Vanilla, the software is minimalist

  • http://ravindrajoisa.blogspot.in/ Ravi

    It's a blind copy from Android. I had used Apple, but we all have switched to Samsung Galaxy phones now.. just love Android.

  • Citrus Rain

    If I was Google, I would sue ASAP for only a penny. Have that be known from the start.

    It would go unnoticed to not sue. And wouldn't prove any point.

    But winning the lawsuit and only asking for a penny - or even dropping the charges at the finish line... That would be the best thing ever.