The Tech News Blog

February 26, 2015

Apple Ordered to Pay $533M in iTunes Patent Case

iTunes Tips

Apple this week lost a patent infringement case related to iTunes software and was ordered to pay $532.9 million in fines.

As reported by Bloomberg, Apple argued that it never used the patents in question, and had asked the court to invalidate those patents, held by Texas-based Smartflash.

In a statement, Cupertino said Smartflash is nothing but a patent troll.

"Smartflash makes no products, has no employees, creates no jobs, has not U.S. presence, and is exploiting our patent system to seek royalties for technology Apple invented," an Apple spokeswoman said in an email. "We refused to pay off this company for the ideas our employees spent years innovating and unfortunately we have been left with no choice but to take this fight up through the court system."

Smartflash, meanwhile, said the jury "worked hard" through the trial, paying close attention to facts.

"Ultimately, the jury saw through Apple's arguments and reached the right result," a lawyer with Caldwell Cassady & Curry, which is representing Smartflash, told PCMag in a statement. "The jury's verdict provides well-deserved and long-overdue recognition."

The firm won't get the $852 million in damages it sought, but the final ruling still throws a heavy financial punch at Apple, which claimed the three patents were worth no more than $4.5 million, Bloomberg said.

According to the original suit, filed in May 2013, Apple's iTunes infringed on copyrights regarding access to and storage of downloaded songs, videos, and games. Smartflash specifically pointed to infringements in iOS apps developed by Game Circus and KingsIsle Entertainment. Those companies served as defendants, but were dismissed from the case last year, Bloomberg reported.

Launched at the turn of the century by inventor Patrick Racz, Smartflash's only business is licensing seven patents issued between 2008 and 2012, Bloomberg said.

Smartflash has also sued Google, Amazon, HTC, and Samsung for patent infringement regarding data storage and access systems.

December 21, 2014

Apple Patent Hints at More Uses for Touch ID Sensor

iPhone 6Apple has slowly expanded the utilization of the Touch ID sensor beyond its security-focused origins. And if a new patent is any indication of the company's ambitions, then the little touch button on the bottom of your brand-new iPhone might be able to do even more things in the future.

We're being vague, we realize, but that's the nature of patents. The existence of a filing with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office doesn't necessarily mean that Apple is planning big changes for the iPhone 7 or other future devices.

But this particular patent spotted by AppleInsider is intriguing. It was submitted by Dale Setlak, who co-founded the company AuthenTec, acquired by Apple in mid-2012.

Said patent, which Setlak originally filed for in June of last year, is titled "Electronic Device Switchable to a User-Interface Unlocked Mode Based Upon a Pattern of Input Motions and Related Methods." To put that in common-speak, the patent describes various ways that the Touch ID sensor on a smartphone could be used to do a variety things.

One such example found within the patent involves a person twisting his or her finger around in a clockwise or counterclockwise motion to manipulate a digital lock on the smartphone's screen. In another example, a user drags a finger across the Touch ID sensor to complete a locking pattern on the iPhone itself. That would seemingly combine fingerprint verification with pattern identity.

The patent also teases the idea that perhaps Apple's Touch ID could serve as a super-precise sensor for when a person needs finer control over his or her finger movements. For example, if one is doing a bit of iPhone-based painting, perhaps running a finger over the Touch ID could be akin to lowering the DPI of one's mouse to more precisely manipulate the cursor.

Apple has already dabbled ever-so-slightly in Touch ID sensor recognition, though not a lot. Right now, iPhone 6 and 6 Plus users can double-tap their Touch ID sensors—that's tap, not press—in order to temporairly shift the contents of their device downward. For those with tiny hands, but huge iPhones, it's a fun little trick for reaching the upper portions of the smartphone screen without having to shift a hand up and down.

December 17, 2014

Report: Sprint Faces $105M Phone ‘Cramming’ Fine

Sprint Logo Sprint may be facing a $105 million fine from the Federal Communications Commission for unauthorized charges on customers' cell phone bills.

Sprint is reportedly accused of "cramming," or charging customers for unwanted text message alerts, according to The Wall Street Journal.

At issue are bogus fees for monthly subscriptions to services like horoscopes, sports scores, and ringtones.

Sprint declined to comment on the reports; the FCC did not immediately responded to PCMag's request.

AT&T was hit with a $105 million cramming fine in October by the Federal Trade Commission. According to the FTC, customers often did not agree to the charges, which were hidden on AT&T phone bills. AT&T was also accused of failing to stop the bogus charges in a timely manner since it received a 35 percent cut of all sales. Almost 360,000 individuals sought reimbursements from AT&T.

Meanwhile, T-Mobile this summer was also accused of failing to stop bogus charges on customers' bills; an FTC complaint said the Un-carrier made "hundreds of millions of dollars" via premium SMS subscriptions. T-Mobile has denied any wrongdoing.

AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint actually pledged last year to stop charging for spam or "premium" texts. When asked about that pledge in the wake of the AT&T fine, Edith Ramirez, Chairwoman of the FTC, said that "the carriers agreed to stop the premium text messaging services as of January 2014," but the AT&T settlement at least "applies to all forms of direct-carrier billing, so this continues to be an issue."

Complaints about cramming date back to at least 2008, when regulators started requiring carriers to refund customers who were duped into signing up for extra services they didn't want.

The FTC filed its first case in April 2013 against companies that add fraudulent charges to users' mobile phone bills.

In July, the FTC published a set of cramming-related recommendations, which includes five actions to be taken by mobile carriers, merchants who charge directly to phone bills, and billing intermediaries who facilitate charges.

The Senate Commerce Committee also joined the fight, calling on mobile providers to more vigilantly monitor evolving third-party billing practices.

October 28, 2014

FTC Sues AT&T for Reducing Data Speeds on Unlimited Plans

AT&T Logo Building Note to mobile carriers: You better watch out how you use the word "unlimited." Because you might just find yourself in hot water with the Federal Trade Commission if the service you're offering isn't truly without limits, in terms of data.

Case in point—the FTC on Tuesday announced it is suing AT&T for misleading customers by charging them for "unlimited" data plans while reducing their data speeds, in some cases by nearly 90 percent. The complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court in San Francisco, alleges that AT&T failed to adequately warn customers that unlimited data doesn't necessarily mean unlimited high speed data.

"AT&T promised its customers 'unlimited' data, and in many instances, it has failed to deliver on that promise," FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez said in a statement. "The issue here is simple: 'unlimited' means unlimited."

In a statement, AT&T called the allegations "baseless" and said it has been transparent about its throttling practices from the very beginning of the program, which started in 2011.

"We informed all unlimited data-plan customers via bill notices and a national press release that resulted in nearly 2,000 news stories, well before the program was implemented," the company said. AT&T added that the throttling program has only affected about 3 percent of its customers, and before any customer is affected, they are notified by text message.

"It's baffling as to why the FTC would choose to take this action against a company that, like all major wireless providers, manages its network resources to provide the best possible service to all customers, and does it in a way that is fully transparent and consistent with the law and our contracts," AT&T said.

Like many other carriers, AT&T slows—or throttles—data speeds after users reach a certain amount of data in a given billing cycle. The FTC complaint alleges that AT&T throttles speeds to the point that many common smartphone apps—like Web browsing, GPS navigation, and streaming video—become difficult or nearly impossible to use.

At the same time, AT&T's marketing materials emphasize the "unlimited" data which customers can get on its plans. Even when unlimited plan customers renew their contracts, AT&T failed to mention its throttling practices, the FTC claimed. And when customers cancel their contracts after being throttled, they are hit with early termination fees typically amounting to hundreds of dollars.

The agency estimated that AT&T has throttled at least 3.5 million customers a total of more than 25 million times since 2011. AT&T's throttling often results in speed reductions of 80 to 90 percent, or more.

This practice, naturally, doesn't sit well with consumers. Participants in AT&T focus groups "strongly objected" to AT&T's throttling practice and an investigation revealed that the company received thousands of complains about slow data speeds under the throttling program, the FTC said.

October 8, 2014

AT&T to Pay $105 Million for Bogus Cell Phone Fees

AT&T Logo Building AT&T has agreed to pay $105 million for adding unauthorized cell phone charges to its customers bills, the Federal Trade Commission and Federal Communications Commission announced today.

AT&T will pay $80 million to the FTC, which will be used for customer refunds; affected customers can go to to seek a refund. AT&T Mobility will also pay $20 million to state governments participating in the settlement, and will make a $5 million penalty payment to the U.S. Treasury.

At issue are bogus charges for monthly subscriptions to things like ringtones, wallpaper, and text messages with horoscopes, flirting tips, celebrity gossip, and more. Most of these charges were $9.99 per month, though in some cases they were as high as $60 per month.

In many cases, customers did not agree to these charges, which were hidden on phone bills, the FTC said. Meanwhile, AT&T colluded with these third-party services to make sure users did not get refunds since AT&T got a 35 percent cut of all sales.

"AT&T told these companies that it would 'help lower refunds' by only providing refunds up to two months worth of charges," Edith Ramirez, Chairwoman of the FTC, said during a Wednesday press conference.

The move comes several months after the FTC filed suit against T-Mobile for failing to stop bogus charges on customers' bills, also known as cramming - charges T-Mobile denies. Will other carriers - like Sprint or Verizon - get also be hit with cramming charges? "Stay tuned," FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said today.

Chairman Wheeler said the deal is the largest cramming settlement and largest FCC enforcement action in history. It is notable, he said, because it is co-signed by 51 state attorneys general.

"For too long, consumers have been charged on their phone bills for things they did not buy," Wheeler said today. "It's estimated that 20 million consumers per year are caught in this type of [cramming] trap, [but] it stops today for AT&T."

"Today, we reached a broad settlement to resolve claims that some of our wireless customers were billed for charges from third-parties that the customers did not authorize," AT&T said in a statement. "This settlement gives our customers who believe they were wrongfully billed for PSMS [Premium Short Messaging Services] services the ability to get a refund."

AT&T pointed to a pledge it made alongside Sprint and T-Mobile last year to stop charging for spam or "premium" texts.

"In the past, our wireless customers could purchase services like ringtones from other companies using Premium Short Messaging Services (PSMS) and we would put those charges on their bills," AT&T said. "While we had rigorous protections in place to guard consumers against unauthorized billing from these companies, last year we discontinued third-party billing for PSMS services."

When asked about that pledge today, Chairwoman Ramirez said that "the carriers agreed to stop the premium text messaging services as of January 2014," but today's settlement "applies to all forms of direct-carrier billing, so this continues to be an issue."

As part of the deal, AT&T committed to the FCC that it will obtain express consent from consumers about third-party billing going forward, and revise its billing practices so consumers can easily see what they are paying for, and offer the option on block all third-party services.

September 18, 2014

Report: Apple Needs Another License to Sell iPhone 6 in China

iPhone 6

Apple fanatics are already lining up around the globe to be the first to nab an iPhone 6 on Sept. 19. But consumers will have to wait in China, where Cupertino must obtain more licenses before its new phones can enter the mainland market.

According to Chinese news site Xinhua, Apple won two major regulatory approvals, but still needs a key network access license.

Reuters suggested that the licensing process has "not completely stalled." Apple did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The iPhone 6 and 6 Plus go on sale Friday in the U.S., Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Japan, Puerto Rico, Singapore, and the U.K. But Apple has not yet announced a solid launch date for China—one of Apple's most important markets, and home to many of its supplier factories.

Cupertino unveiled the next-generation gadgets earlier this month, showing off its bigger, better 4.7-inch and 5.5-inch handsets, with the new A8 chip and M8 co-processor, as well as NFC support.

August 2, 2014

Microsoft Sues Samsung Over Unpaid Bills

New Microsoft Logo It seems Samsung may be getting a bit careless about paying its bills. At least Microsoft thinks so—the software giant is suing Samsung over unpaid patent royalty payments.

The lawsuit, filed Friday in the U.S. District Court of the Southern District of New York, describes patent royalty payments Samsung agreed to pay for using Microsoft's technology in Android-based smartphones and tablets. The amount Microsoft is seeking from Samsung wasn't named.

In the lawsuit and in a blog post by Microsoft's deputy general counsel David Howard, Redmond cited a confidential agreement reached between the two companies in September 2011 to cross-license their patent portfolios for various products.

The long and the short of it is that Microsoft claims Samsung stopped living up to its end of the deal last fall when the South Korean company refused "to make its Fiscal Year 2 royalty payment on time" and further refused "to pay interest on its late payment."

Microsoft, meanwhile, says it has lived up to its end of its agreement to provide Samsung with unspecified remuneration for using Samsung IP in Microsoft products.

Howard said Samsung was claiming the 2011 cross-license agreement had somehow been rendered void following Microsoft's acquisition of Nokia's handset business for $7.2 billion, a deal announced last September and completed in April.

"In September 2013, after Microsoft announced it was acquiring the Nokia Devices and Services business, Samsung began using the acquisition as an excuse to breach its contract. Curiously, Samsung did not ask the court to decide whether the Nokia acquisition invalidated its contract with Microsoft, likely because it knew its position was meritless," Howard said.

Howard also pointed to the rapid growth of Samsung's smartphone business as a possible factor for Samsung's supposed change of heart about the 2011 agreement.

"Since Samsung entered into the agreement, its smartphone sales have quadrupled and it is now the leading worldwide player in the smartphone market," he said. "Consider this: when Samsung entered into the agreement in 2011, it shipped 82 million Android smartphones. Just three years later, it shipped 314 million Android smartphones. Samsung predicted it would be successful, but no one imagined their Android smartphone sales would increase this much."

Samsung did not immediately respond to a request for comment. However, PCWorld reported Friday that a Samsung spokesperson said "the company would review the complaint in detail and determine appropriate measures in response."

August 1, 2014

With Obama’s Signature, Cell Phone Unlocking Legal Once Again

Roundup: Best Unlocked Phones President Obama this afternoon signed into law a bill that makes it legal for consumers to unlock their cell phones.

"As long as their phone is compatible and they have complied with their contracts, consumers will now be able to enjoy the freedom of taking their mobile service - and a phone they already own - to the carrier that best fits their needs," the White House said in a statement.

The Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act was approved by Congress last month, and now becomes law. It specifies that consumers can unlock their cell phones without running afoul of copyright laws. It also directs the Librarian of Congress to consider whether gadgets like tablets should be eligible for unlocking.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, whose agency pushed for cell phone unlocking under former Chairman Julius Genachowski more than a year ago, said today the new law is a "positive development."

"When the wireless industry worked with the FCC on a voluntary agreement to unlock devices when consumers' contracts have been fulfilled, they took an important step forward," Wheeler said. "The President's signature today makes greater consumer choice the law of the land."

July 15, 2014

Fox Loses Another Bid to Ban Dish Hopper Features

Dish Hopper with Sling

The Dish Hopper lives on. An appeals court this week rejected Fox Broadcasting's bid to kill certain features on the Dish Hopper Whole-Home DVR platform.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals on Monday upheld a lower court's September ruling, allowing Dish to continue providing its Dish Anywhere and Hopper Transfer tools.

"Dish is pleased that the Court has sided again with consumer choice and control by rejecting Fox's efforts to deny our customers access," general counsel R. Stanton Dodge said in a statement.

Fox accused the lower court of making legal errors and erroneous factual findings in its ruling, but the appeals court did not agree. According to the judges' four-page opinion, the court denied Fox's request due to a lack of evidence that Dish's technology would "irreparably harm" the company.

July 10, 2014

Dish Asks FCC to Block Comcast, TWC Merger

DISH Network Five months after Comcast announced plans to acquire Time Warner Cable for $45.2 billion, competitor Dish Network wants to stop them.

The satellite broadcaster met with officials at the Federal Communications Commission this week to express "serious competitive concerns" about a combined Comcast and TWC.

Chief among them is the "increased incentive and ability to leverage its control over the broadband pipe to undermine these services," Dish said.

Together, Comcast and TWC will have at least three choke points in the broadband pipe, which Dish fears will hinder competing video services. Each point—last mile "public Internet" channel, interconnection point, any managed or specialized service channels—allows for the united company to shut out rivals, like Dish.

If that weren't enough to ruffle Dish Network's feathers, the satellite provider also believes that a combined cable company will shift programming in an anticompetitive direction. As Dish explained in its filing, the joint organization would be able to extort lower prices from programmers, which will, in turn, need to enforce higher rates from smaller pay-TV providers, i.e. Dish.

Though Comcast has offered to divest customers to Charter to get the deal done, Dish is not convinced. "There do not appear to be any conditions that would remedy the harms that would result from the merger," Dish said.

Since there is no easy solution to the problem, according to Dish, the merger should therefore be denied. Not everyone agrees, though.