Apple licensed 'design patents' to Microsoft, protecting Windows Phone and tablets

Say what you will about Microsoft and Apple but the two companies either appear to be the only adults in the room or alternatively, they have formed an alliance against Android. Or maybe both.

Evidence has come forth in the Apple-Samsung trial that the former has licensed so-called ‘design patents’ to Microsoft, which indemnify them against lawsuits from Apple over their Windows Phone and Surface tablets. This may partially explain why Apple was trying to collect patent royalties from Samsung in their late 2010 offer to the company.

Although details of exactly what is covered in the patents was not revealed, the backroom deal looks to be an extension of contracts that Microsoft and Apple have had going back to the 1980’s to cooperate and license proper technology where applicable, avoiding public courtroom spats.

One caveat of the deal though was made public: Microsoft could not “clone” any Apple products with the patents. Of course anyone who has used a Windows Phone or has seen Windows 8 tablets know that any similarities between them and Apple’s products would be a stretch. But Apple does hold broad rights on the iPhone's “look and feel” which theoretically could give them teeth in court to pursue Microsoft if they wanted. But seeing as the two companies have a mutual, cross-licensing deal in place, the companies are legally in a détente against each other. That leaves Apple free to go “thermonuclear” on Android and their partners, which is what we’re seeing now with Samsung.

Microsoft is also well known to have insured their OEMs against any litigation, should any be brought against them, providing legal coverage and financial assistance. Combined with the above deal between the two tech-juggernauts, hardware manufactures may be breathing a sigh of relief while others may re-consider doubling down on Windows Phone in the future.

The court case between Apple and Samsung could be wrapped up within the next week. Its verdict may have far-reaching ramifications for the smartphone industry, specifically Samsung’s bread and butter, Android.

Source: Reuters

Daniel Rubino

Daniel Rubino is the Editor-in-chief of Windows Central, head reviewer, podcast co-host, and analyst. He has been here covering Microsoft since 2007 when this site was called WMExperts (and later Windows Phone Central). His interests include Windows, Microsoft Surface, laptops, next-gen computing, and for some reason, watches. Before all this tech stuff, he worked on a Ph.D. in linguistics and ran the projectors at movie theaters, which has done absolutely nothing for his career.

  • This makes ZERO sense.
    The first type of device that Apple made was a PDA and the second was by HP... TC1000/TC100.
    Why would MS have to licence anything?
  • As i explained: Apple has a very broad patent on the iPhone and iPad design. It's the reason why the Samsung Tab 10.1 had to change its "look" recently as found in German and US courts (the Tab 10.1 was banned due to infringing on Apple's form). The Microsoft-Apple deal appears to be more "dot your i's and cross your t's." In other words, Microsoft paid Apple to not get any grief over Apple's designs. It's like paying a toll.  You could rightly argue that Apple's so-called design-patents are so broad as to be specious but so far, they have held up in court. In turn, Microsoft gets a pass legally from Apple while Samsung, who refuses to pay, does not. Makes total sense to me.
  • Cross-licensing means less money changes hands than you would think since there are plenty of Microsoft technologies Apple needs like Exchange ActiveSync, in the iPhone since iPhone OS 2.0, among other things. I'm sure it's also not pure coincidence that iOS can read Office documents correctly even if it can't edit them either.
  • Where is the proof that Microsoft is paying Apple? Microsoft has a more potent patent portfolio than Apple. And the way I see it Apple licensed these particular ones to Microsoft to lower their own payments to Microsoft.
  • "Paying" doesn't necessarily mean cash. Cross-licensing is a form of payment since otherwise it would cost money to do so. So here it's being using more metaphorically. Either in cash or licenses, both companies are giving something up to get something in return.
  • Exactly. And because Microsoft are the ones with the more formidable patent portfolio, it is reasonable to suggest it is Apple paying back Microsoft.
  • Does it matter? Fact is: both companies are offering something up to one another.
  • If Microsoft agreed not to clone Apple products, how do you explain the Wintel Ultrabooks?  They are the most blatant knockoff of the MacAirs I've ever seen and certainly violate Apple's wedge patent.
    Apple's lawsuits were never about copying, they're about hurting the legitimate competition,  targeting the only two Android OEM's that were making money.  Apple won't sue Microsoft because no one is buying their ultra-knockoffs or Windows Phones, so they are simply not worth the trouble.
    It is unlikely that the Corporate States of America will do anything about Apple's ridiculous patents or their anti-competitive behavior.  It is very likely that regulators and lawmakers in the EU and East Asia who are long tired of American tech giants throwing their weight around will start looking to take action.
  • No one buys UltraBooks? And Corporate States of America?
    I would hate to visit your world.
  • Yes.... A troll post
  • As the happy owner of an ultrabook I can tell you that I'm part of an elite group.  They are less than 1/2 of 1 percent of notebook sales, and 9 out of 10 consumers who buy a slim and light notebook get  a Mac.  If you are happy to live in the world where 'corporations are people too' , with no regard for any interests but their own, then I kinda hate your world too.
  • In this business, so far, we have a Series 9, a Folio 13 and a couple of others
  • What other interests should they hold other than increasing sales to be a successful company? Check out foxcon if you think US corps are bad.
  • Apple were not the first to use the chiclet keyboard and there were thin laptops before the air.
  • Apple isn't  the first to do anything, thats the point Samsung is trying to make in this trial.  The iPhone and iPad are an assemblage of existing ideas, yet all through this thread Samsung is trashed as the knockoff artist.  Companies in all industries mimic the 'next big thing', and Apple's built in audience of sheeple tends to make their new products that next big thing.  The broken American patent system lets them block others from stealing just liike they do.
  • um... i think u have something mixed up here.. Ultrabooks is an Intel initiative, not Microsoft
    besides, Microsoft didn't make those hardware, Apple still can't sue them if they wanted to, Microsoft just provided the software (windows), in this case (surface and windowsphone) is a bit different since surface is branded as Microsoft hardware product and windowsphone's UI had to be designed completely different (which is a good thing btw) from Apple's to prevent from infringing this deal
  • ´'iPhone' is a copied name from a Linksys IP Phone (originally from Info Gear).
    iPhone is a copied form factor from an LG Prada original design.
    ïPad is a copied form factor from a (Yes) Samsung 2006 photoframe.
    You were saying?
  • HP TC1000 - Released 2007 and has round pretty corners.  How do people explain this?  The timing all seems to be wrong
  • You are doing a terrible job explaining this. Cross license could mean Apple is paying Microsoft or neither is paying either one anything. Microsoft could also be suing Apple without this agreement. In fact it's very likely that without this cross license agreement that Microsoft could easily get every iPhone and Mac banned from sale. Likewise Apple could create significant headaches for Windows and its OEMs without this agreement.
  • MS hardware and OS design are so different from Apple and Android. Why would MS have to license from Apple?
  • Read my above comment. It has to do with Apple's very broad rights to the iPhone and iPad deisgn.
  • ..."Apple's very broad rights to the iPhone and iPad deisgn"... Do you mean the design that Apple 'Copied' from Samsung, LG and Linksys... Quoting myself:
    ´'iPhone' is a copied name from a Linksys IP Phone (originally from Info Gear).
    iPhone is a copied form factor from an LG Prada original design.
    iPad is a copied form factor from a (Yes) Samsung 2006 photoframe.
    You were saying?
  • iPhone and iPad look and feel is like every device with a touchscreen that is rectangular between 3" and 10".
    It's like patenting the word "Television". But Apple is getting away with a lot. Kinda like the appeasement policy that led to WW2...
  • "Kinda like the appeasement policy that led to WW2..."
    Wow. First use of Godwin's law in while. I should lock commetns now as obviously we've reached the end of reason.
  • Yeah, sorry...
    you probably should
  • But he is right, because Apple was the one who copied and gets away with it!
  • license and royalty are two different things.  It could be very well that MS and apple have a royalty free cross licensing agreement of each other's patent portfolios....this happens ALL the time.  But when you are using a stolen product you don't have a leg to stand on.  Samsung is in a lurch.
  • I swear the GS3 looks like iPhone 3G. Even the name has some baring to it. And included is the bottom physical button. Is Samsung cloning Apple?
  • I swear all my mobile phones have looked the same as any apple mobile, wether it had a screen, on/off button, volume controls. Its a bloody mobile. Apple need a b**ch slap across the face.. You did NOT invent the damn mobile device! Here's an idea lets just gas Nokia and other manufacturers, who developed mobile standard technology not let apple use its patents no matter how much they pay! Bye bye apple!
  • +1
  • @stjimmie Apple is just using the system that's in place. I'm not sure I'd blame them as much as the current patent system that allows such behavior.
  • Maybe I should patent the way people breath using their lungs and I will charge every human being and animal for breathing.
  • Companies are patenting human genes and cancers, so it's not like that's too far of a stretch. Try reading up on Monsanto and what they're doing to farmers. Welcome to your corporatocracy. 
  • Thanks for info. and I will read on that.
  • Daniel,
         Just for a laugh anyone patent the shape of a hot dog? :-P
  • The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
  • And iPhone looks like 2006 original LG Prada...
  • So what of the chances of Samsung dropping Android all together? I guess it will depend, as you said, how the court fight turns out.
  • They got tizen in the works.
  • They already have Bada OS.
  • It's ludicrous to think that Samsung would drop Android, and especially for anything other than Windows Phone. I know of too many people who think Android is a Samsung operating system. Put those users back on Bada and Tim Cook will be laughing his ass off.
  • Interesting.
    Even without these 'design patents' in place, it's stretching for me to see anything in WP that remotely resembles the 'look and feel' of the iOS UI.  But that's just me :)
  • I think the point was stated that the patents are so broad, they cover the general "look and feel" of a smartphone. I.e. swiping, touch interface, swipe to unlock, etc. Technically all of these things could infringe on Apples broad patents. If you look at some of the actual patents, its amazing anyone else could make a touch smartphone. I assume that is part of reason why jobs was so pissed at google.
  • The agreement specifications are secret, for what we know, it could be a discount of royalties Apple is paying to Ms ;) Apple could advance some patents on "design", but as regards software patents it s a microbe compares to Ms.
  • So Apple makes money with every WP sold...
  • You should probably read the article again.
  • Well not on the ones Samsung sells - not yet anyway.
  • Why would Apple make a point of the MS deal? It comes across to me as Apple suggesting the use of WP as an OS and leave Android alone. Especially since MS bullet proofs the OEMs with legal help. Of course Jobs and Gates have always had a love hate relationship and MS bailed Apple out financially when it almost went belly up.
  • They're attempting to establish the validity of the patents by proxy - "See, Microsoft thought they were important."
  • I am pretty sure these two will never sue each other. They have been in this for so long that if they could not make deals on patents they would have destroyed each other decades ago. I doubt that they are even paying each other.
  • Think about all the Microsoft software that runs on Apple products. Office alone is huge on the Mac. I think they both have always had an alliance. Bill and Steve were very good friends. They balance each other in the Tech world. Google poses a threat two the two of them and the only way to stop them is to share patents.
  • "Bill and Steve were very good friends." - yeah, right!
  • im thinking no money actually changed hands.
  • Macheads hate Microsoft.
  • Well, the same is probably vice-versa. But recently, I think the two camps have come closer together due to two reasons: Apple fans are starting to respect some of the design choices by MS, for once Android kind of rubs a lot of people the wrong way. At least those with visual taste. (Zing!) Just kidding, Android can be fun too.
  • So Microsoft hates macheads. :-P
  • Well written Daniel. Probably your best work yet.
  • Thanks. Throw enough spaghetti on the wall and something always sticks :-P
  • I wonder if ENGADGET even posted this on their website..
    This will easily get nasty over there....
    MSFT and APPLE made the right thing....destroy ANDROID.....fuck Google...
    IOS+WP =BFF..
  • Well, well, Nokia doesn't seem so stupid after all, Android fans. It's all coming to light now. Apple isn't suing Microsoft just like nobody would drop the atomic bomb: mutually assured destruction.
  • Apple is already paying Nokia a bunch to license patents, I'm sure Apple would have loved to offset that a bit with a cross-license to Nokia had they gone Android.
  • Let's be realistic here... Microsoft has far more patents in their portfolio than Apple, but there's no doubt a LOT of cross-patent-licensing going on here, and it's a simple matter of cooperation. This is something that Google isn't so good at... cooperation. Samsung, however, is cross-licensing with Microsoft, though, and I thought the whole benefit of that was that Microsoft would help in these types of issues. Regardless, it truly is more cost effective to cross-license and settle than drag these into a courtroom... If I were Apple, I'd be looking for a new components supplier before this fight gets any worse, and if I were Samsung, I'd just pull the plug on selling them components. Oh, and before anyone mentions how much money Samsung would lose in pulling away from Apple, let me remind you that Samsung is now the biggest supplier of both displays AND phones... someone else will pick up the slack if Apple isn't clogging up the supply chain.
  • Maybe ms will pick up that slack
  • Never trust dark side of force of apple lol...
  • Money and business win over love or hate.
    Consider that apple cloud system is hosted on Microsoft Azure, and I've read somewhere that WP AppHub testers are all from an Indian Company that is owned by Google, and Ms pay them using part of the royaltyes that got from android. Lol
  • Like Samsung and Apple, Apple buys lot of hw components from Samsung, maybe all this "termonuclear war" goal is to obtain a lower price for some hw stuff ;)
  • @Daniel Rubino
    It must suck having to explain you post every other comment. People need to just read your article instead of skimming and then asking stupid questions.
  • You all miss the crucial point here. This old deal from 1997 prevents Microsoft and Apple from cloning each others products. All people only talk about how Microsoft can't clone the iPhone look and feel. Who cares as WP had its own look and feel. But the deal also control that Apple can't clone Microsoft look and fell. Do you understand what this means? This means no live tiles for Apple. This deal actually locks Apple to the dead icon design. They can't refresh iOS because if the try yo make a more live start page they will break the deal! This means that Apple will be forced to the outdated and old icon look on their devices. As people learn to use Windows 8 IOS will look all the more like a dinosaur :-)
  • Great point Bruno. This may also be the reason Jobs and Apple have tried to sell the idea that a software system that merges the PC, tablet and mobile phone isn't a feasible idea since Microsoft has the 3 screen idea patented and Apple isn't allowed to follow suit.
  • Let me just push the idea a bit further... Kinnect! Apple just can't follow that path that will make every single screen TouchLESS!
  • Apple couldn't do it anyway, no one can. MS literally owns all the technology behind Kinect. They bought everything and everyone attached to it.
  • I have a feeling Samsung won't pull the plug on supplying Apple due to binding contracts. Samsung losing a court battle against Apple and being found guilty of IP infringement may give Apple an out clause in the contract, but Samsung has a lockdown on the supply materials that cannot be replaced or duplicated in the near future. I am pretty sure if Apple did void the supply contract they have clauses that restrict or prohibit Samsung from selling to the competition. Jobs was great at future proofing.
  • Not to mention that if Samsung has to pay big royalties to Apple then there goes even more of the OS that is supposedly "FREE" making Android more expensive yet on top of the royalties to MS. Samsung has to walk a very thin line here with both Apple and MS being big partners to them as a big supplier to Apple and a big OEM of MS in phones and laptops and tablets.
  • Samsung is a huge company with a billion products, unlike iPhone (outdated icons) and iPad (outdated icons too)...
  • i think microsoft  should Sue apple , i mean come on andoid and the iphone look like the windows desk top with the static icons and the system widgets . phones are just small personal computers why should either of them get away with coyping ms design even if it is on a different type of device.
  • +1.
  • Corporate States of America?? Wow...
  • I not aware of any evidence to suggest that Apple was referring to anything more than the long term cross licensing agreement they have had with Microsoft for decades. Is there any evidence to suggest Microsoft signed something new? I would be surprised if they did.
  • Perhaps it's because of this that apple copied the viewfinder feature and put in ios6 without worrying of any MS accusations. Yeah..i can totally see that...
  • Some real clueless babies here...