Reading between the lines on patents

A reader sent me a note asking if I had seen the thread on Treo Central discussing some patents Palm received on mobile devices with folding screens. Several people have been speculating online that this design might be the new category of device that Palm's developing.

The product designs depicted in the patents are intriguing. They show a device that looks like a mobile phone:

...but opens to reveal something that looks, well, almost exactly like I've always imagined an info pad would look:

There's a flexible screen on the inside, so you get one continuous writing or viewing surface when the device is opened.

Alas, the patents tell us almost nothing about what Palm might be developing today. If you look carefully, they were filed in January 2001, when Palm had a completely different senior management team.

Some of the inventors don't even work at Palm anymore. Frank Canova is mentioned in one of the patents. He was head of advanced technology at the time, but left the company in 2002. Rich Gioscia is on several of the patents. He was driving industrial design at the time, and is still with the company.

The patents can't be early prototypes of Jeff Hawkins' secret project, because he was not working at Palm at the time. It is possible that the ideas filed for by Canova and Gioscia and the others were incorporated into Hawkins' project, but it's just as possible that the patents represent an old idea that the company abandoned years ago.

This sort of thing often happens with patents -- many tech companies pay bonuses to their engineers to file for patents on almost anything they can think of, because patents are used like trading cards in industry negotiations. It's helpful to have a big collection of them. Even if a patents was for a real product that was being developed at one point, by the time the patent's granted the company may have changed its plans completely.

But I will say this: I want that folding device so badly that it makes my teeth hurt.


Michael Mace said...

I should have mentioned that Palm Addict also has a post on the patents. Sorry, guys, I didn't mean to leave you out.

Brian said...

Good points Michael. I started the thread at TreoCentral and submitted my thoughts about "Foleo" to PalmAddicts. I hadn't considered that a different management team was involved would prevent Palm from using these designs or other folding designs for a new "Foleo" device category.

I did find the trademark "Foleo" (filed in January 2005) interesting in that it suggests a folding device. The goods and services description is fairly broad, and one could argue that it's a catch-all that refers to any of Palm's products. However, I think there are some terms and phrases in there that suggest a relationship to Palm's "third business" in light of Jeff Hawkins' and Ed Colligan's hints about the implications of having a broadband modem in your pocket.

Bottom line: I think Foleo (a variation of folio) on its face, suggests a folding design.

I'd love folding, info-pad type device too.