Apple patents may point to what's next for iPhone

The company is looking at a way to bring fuel cell power to smartphones, a report says

Imagine a smartphone that can go weeks without needing its battery recharged.

Apple owns the patent for a fuel cell system to power a portable computer, and that patent may be one to watch as the company rolls out new versions of its iPhone, according to a new report from Thomson Reuters. Apple filed for the fuel cell patent in August 2010.

Another smartphone technology that may be coming from Apple could involve new ways of interacting with text, said the report, by Thomson Reuters analyst Bob Stembridge. An Apple patent, filed in January 2010, covers technology that allows smartphone users to touch a word on their screen and have a picture, or potentially other media, come up on the screen to assist the user with the meaning of the word.

Apple is scheduled to introduce the fifth version of its iPhone on Wednesday.

The fuel cell patent jumped out at Stembridge as something with big potential for the mobile phone industry, he said. While car manufacturers have explored the use of fuel cells in electric vehicles, "it's quite a challenge to implement that technology on the iPod or iPhone scale," he said.

The second patent, for touch-based linking of text to other media, could have several educational uses, Stembridge said. What Apple seems to describe in its patent is a type of text-based Siri technology, he said.

Looking at Apple's patents may be a way to look into the future of the iPhone, Stembridge said. "If a company takes the time and trouble to fill out a patent application for a technology, there's at least an interest in pursuing that," he added.

Stembridge's report also noted that Apple has aggressively defended its patents in recent years.

Apple has filed for about 1,200 mobile-related patents, including 416 smartphone-related patents, since introducing the iPhone in 2007, the report said. The company has filed for 279 mobile camera patents, 232 user interface patents and 149 image display patents since then.

Before 2007, Apple had applied for just 17 mobile patents, the report said.

From 2008 to July of this year, Apple has been involved in 479 patent lawsuits, including 263 as a defendant, 120 as a counter-claimant and 51 as a plaintiff, the report said. In 2011, alone the company was involved in about 150 patent lawsuits, and in 2012, the company has filed 19 patent lawsuits, compared to 12 in each of the full years of 2010 and 2011, and less than five in each year between 2007 and 2009, according to the report.

The "patent wars" between Apple and several other mobile phone vendors aren't likely to cool down soon, Stembridge predicted. An "ultra-competitive environment will continue to fuel IP-related (intellectual property-related) litigation for the foreseeable future," he wrote in the report.

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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